SI Vault
Austin Murphy
May 16, 2011
After winning the Cup in 2004, the Lightning sank into a deep funk. New ownership, a new G.M. and, above all, an innovative, cerebral new coach have made the franchise the surprise of the postseason
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May 16, 2011

The Brain That Saved Tampa Bay

After winning the Cup in 2004, the Lightning sank into a deep funk. New ownership, a new G.M. and, above all, an innovative, cerebral new coach have made the franchise the surprise of the postseason

Guy Boucher prefers not to share the story behind the L-shaped scar on the right side of his face. Unfortunately for the first-year coach of the Lightning—a Quebec native whose name is pronounced GEE Boo-SHAY—the word is out in cyberspace. One Bolts fan has it on good authority that many summers ago the coach was hit in the face with a brick while working construction.

Check that. A different account has Boucher cutting himself with his father's hunting knife on a long-ago camping trip. In point of fact, claims a dissenting blogger, Boucher was scratched by a cat; the cut became infected. Wrong animal, ripostes another denizen of the Interwebs, who reports that the poor fellow was mauled by a dog.

Boucher and his wife, Marsha, have an eight-year-old son, Vincent, and seven-year-old twins, Mila and Naomi. To avoid frightening them, he explains, he would prefer not to reveal how he cut his face until his kids are a few years older. With so many bogus stories swirling around, the issue is now hopelessly clouded. In other words, Boucher wins.

He and Tampa Bay have done nothing but win since April 20. They lost that night to the Penguins, who must have felt pretty good about their chances of getting to the next round of the playoffs, having just taken a 3--1 lead in that Eastern Conference quarterfinal. What followed has been the most stunning run of this NHL postseason. After beating the Pens in three straight games—outscoring them 13--4 in the process—the fifth-seeded Lightning moved on to a more daunting foe, the swift-skating, newly disciplined Capitals, the East's top team and a Stanley Cup favorite.

Yes, Tampa boasts an All-Star trio of forwards in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. But after the Big Three (and the sparkling play of wiry 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson), the drop-off in talent is, well, rather abrupt. Not that Boucher's players noticed against Washington. Executing to near perfection his futuristic 1-3-1 scheme, a kind of neutral zone trap on steroids (page 51), the less talented but more cohesive Lightning dispatched the top-seeded Caps in four games. One vignette summed up the series. With just a little more than seven minutes to play in Game 4—the home fans chanting "Sweep!"—Tampa winger Sean Bergenheim pounced on a turnover, then ripped a wrist shot at Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth, who made the save. As Bergenheim hovered, hoping for a rebound, he was cross-checked by Alex Ovechkin, whose face was a mask of frustration. After the whistle the pair stood glowering at one another: the captain of the NHL's most disappointing team in a stare-down with the most surprising player on its most surprising team.

Having selected Bergenheim in the first round of the 2002 entry draft, the Islanders officially gave up on him last July. A month later Tampa announced, to minimal fanfare, that it had signed him to a one-year deal. First-year general manager Steve Yzerman wanted Bergenheim, now 27, to grind on the third line, to annoy on the forecheck and to kill penalties. Yzerman harbored no illusions that he was importing a sniper.

Tell that to Neuvirth. Bergenheim beat the Caps rookie four times in the series. After scoring 54 goals in 326 games over six NHL seasons, the soft-spoken Finn has now scored seven times in 11 games this postseason. His emergence is no less surprising than the improbable resurgence of the Lightning. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004, but its decline under the 20-month stewardship of co-owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules was steep and spectacular. (The Lightning won an NHL-low 24 games in 2008--09.) In early 2010 they sold the team to Jeff Vinik, a Massachusetts hedge fund manager—and a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox—who restored a large measure of the franchise's dignity by bringing in Yzerman, the classy ex--Detroit Red Wing and Hall of Famer who has made a series of unerring decisions. None was more spot-on, it seems, than his conclusion that despite Boucher's youth (at 39, he's the league's youngest head coach) and lack of NHL experience, the engaging extrovert with the arresting scar and XXL intellect would make a terrific coach at this level.

Right after I got here," Roloson was saying last week, after having handcuffed the Capitals for the fourth game in a row, "I would close my eyes when Guy was talking, and I would hear Jacques Lemaire." Roloson was acquired by Yzerman in a January trade. He played for the since retired Lemaire—an X's-and-O's innovator who popularized the neutral zone trap while leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1994--95—when they were both with the Minnesota Wild from 2001 to '06. "The way Guy sees the game, thinks the game, he's not afraid to do something that nobody's ever done before, and Jacques was the same way."

"The NHL is a little bit of an old-boys' network," says a veteran scout. "A lot of coaches recycle the same old ideas. But [Boucher] isn't afraid to think for himself. He doesn't care what people think."

Boucher grew up in a household where risk-taking was encouraged and expected. His father, Wilfrid, was a highly educated man, an actuary who insisted that his three children "follow their passion," says Guy. Hanging in his office is a dreamy, whimsical oil painting of a Lighting player sitting on the ice, his back against the boards, left arm draped around the Stanley Cup. It is the work of his younger sister Marie-Claude Boucher, whose art has been exhibited throughout Europe and who is regarded as one of Canada's top painters. Her twin, Lucie, a teacher, is also a gifted artist.

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