TAMPA, Fla. -- Jassen Cullimore will never forget the days when the Tampa Bay Lightning were the laughingstock of the NHL. The memories make the club's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals that much sweeter.
"If you would have asked me back then if we would ever be in this situation I would have told you you're crazy," the defenseman said. "Those were some rough times."
When Cullimore was claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens in January 1998, Tampa Bay was in the middle of the first of four consecutive seasons in which the club lost at least 50 games.
Three years removed from that league-record stretch of futility, the Lightning are Eastern Conference champions. They face the Calgary Flames in Game 1 of the Stanley Cups finals at home Tuesday night.
"I am not going to lie to you. There's no chance we thought this would be happening so quick," coach John Tortorella said.
"We are fortunate. I am so happy for the guys. I am happy the way they did it. I think that was the most important thing ... not going in the back door. I think they knocked down the front door and just charged."
After sqaundering an opportunity to eliminate Philadelphia in Game 6 of the conference finals, the Lightning rebounded to beat the Flyers 2-1 in Game 7 on Saturday night.
Instead of trying to sit on a one-goal lead in the third period like they did the previous game - when the Flyers tied the score late in regulation, then won it in overtime - the Lightning dictated the tempo to the final horn.
A sign in the Tampa Bay locker room reads "Safe Is Death" and Tortorella reminded the players between the second and third periods that they needed to remain aggressive to stay on top of the Flyers.
"We learned that no matter, win or lose, you don't want to go out there in the third period and play back on your heels. That's what happened in Philly," said center Brad Richards, who had assists on both Tampa Bay goals.
"You can live with yourself if you try to win a game. We didn't try to win a game and they took it to us (in Game 6)."
The Lightning are in the Cup finals for the first time in just the third playoff appearance in the franchise's 12-year history. Captain Dave Andreychuk has waited nearly twice as long for the opportunity.
The 40-year-old Andreychuk is in his 22nd NHL season and has played more regular-season games (1,597) than any other active player without stepping on the ice in the league's championship series.
Andreychuk's leadership on and off the ice has been one of the crucial elements of the Lightning's steady improvement under Tortorella, who is finishing his third full season as coach.
Tampa Bay won a playoff series for the first time last season and is 12-4 in the postseason this year.
"Last year I thought was a very big year for the team, an understanding that they can win," Tortorella said. "They were fortunate to win a round and found out how hard it is to play in the playoffs the second round. I think those lessons are the most important as you go through this year."
The Lightning beat the Flames 6-2 in the only regular-season meeting between the finalists, although that game was four months ago when few imagined Tampa Bay or Calgary would advance this far.
Andreychuk, who has appeared in 155 playoff games, can't wait to share the experience with his equally excited young teammates.
"I am also in uncharted waters," Andreychuk said. "But I tell you one thing that I can talk about is that we have worked hard to get there and our job is not done yet."
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