After an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous season, the Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans had even more to look forward to in 1996-97 with the debut of the team's much-awaited new home, the Ice Palace now called the St Pete Times Forum. After leading a somewhat nomadic life for four seasons, the team finally had a permanent address of its own on this date, situated along the Garrison Channel in downtown Tampa.
A four-game road trip awaited the Tampa Bay Lightning to start the season as the finishing touches were made to the Ice Palace located in what is now known as the Channelside District, and the team started out as confident as it had been at the end of the previous season. After an overtime win in the opener at Pittsburgh and a loss at Washington, the Tampa Bay Lightning put together impressive wins at Toronto (7-4) and Buffalo (4-0) to carry a 3-1 record into the home opener on Oct. 20. Helping to key the strong start was the Tampa Bay Lightning's major summer acquisition, 500-goal sparkplug Dino Ciccarelli. Obtained in a trade with Detroit, Ciccarelli paid immediate dividends by scoring three times on the road trip and helping to light a fire under Chris Gratton, who recorded his first career hat-trick in the win at Toronto.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were rolling when Wayne Gretzky led the New York Rangers into the Ice Palace near the Tampa Convention Center on Oct. 20 as 20,543 fans awaited a striking debut. Fittingly, all-time leading scorer Brian Bradley christened the building at 11:46 of the first period, tapping home a feed from another original, Rob Zamuner. The Lightning marched on to a 5-2 victory, and improved to 5-1-0 two days later with a 6-3 win at the New York Islanders.
While the team was on a high heading into a home date vs. Ottawa on October 24, nobody could have predicted what the next month would hold for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The first sign of trouble was the injured back of goaltender Daren Puppa, who appeared in the season opener but had been out indefinitely since. Untested goaltender Corey Schwab (acquired in a summertime trade with New Jersey) had performed well to that point, but he began to struggle with the rigors of full-time action in the NHL. Starting with the game against Ottawa, the Tampa Bay Lightning struggled through a 2-14-2 skid and entered December desperate for a turnaround.
Looking to add experience in the net to replace Puppa, Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito pulled off a mid-November deal with Calgary that brought in Rick Tabaracci in exchange for Aaron Gavey. Tabaracci began to pay dividends soon after his arrival, backstopping the team to a 4-0-1 mark in early December that moved the Lightning closer to .500.
The team suffered another major blow in early January when Bradley, on pace for another strong season, suffered a major wrist injury that would force him to miss more than half the season. But Bradley's injury was overshadowed by the news for John Cullen, who left a March game with shortness of breath and was soon diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Despite being without Bradley, Cullen and Puppa, the team hung around in the playoff hunt for the next three months. The team fought to the end and won three of four crucial games down the home stretch, but fell three points short of a return to the post-season.
Among the Lightning standouts in 96-97 were Ciccarelli and Gratton, who became the third and fourth players to record 30-or-more goals in a season for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Also impressive was Tabaracci, who finished with a 20-25-6 record with a 9.02 save percentage and four shutouts.