- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — Last spring Dave Andreychuk was Tampa Bay’s postseason guru. But the young Lightning, who lead the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in this year’s Eastern Conference finals heading into today’s Game 4 at Wachovia Center, have grown up together through five playoff series, and Andreychuk no longer has to be quite so vocal in his role as resident sage.

“It was a challenge when I first came here three years ago,” Andreychuk said. “We’ve come a long way. I take pride that I had a hand in building this team. Some of our core players have improved by leaps and bounds and moved into the elite in the league.

“Hopefully, I’ve shown these guys the importance of working hard every day and being consistent every night,” he said. “And I believe the guys learned a lot from last year when we lost to a very veteran, patient team like [eventual champion] New Jersey. We learned a series isn’t over on one shift.”

Despite reaching the playoffs 18 times in his 23 seasons, Andreychuk has yet to make the finals — and this is just his fourth conference final. No one has played more games than Andreychuk’s 1,597 (seventh all-time) without winning the Cup, and only two players with more goals than his 634 (11th) failed to do so.

“I’m living proof of how hard it is to get to this point,” said Andreychuk, who fed Ruslan Fedotenko for the winning goal in Thursday’s 4-1 victory in Game 3.

Andreychuk’s teammates are well aware of how much this chance means to a 40-year-old, especially with the real possibility of next season being canceled by an owners’ lockout.

“You look at Dave’s career, and you realize how precious it is to be here,” 24-year-old center Brad Richards said. “You’ve got to grab the moment because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. Dave’s going to put everything he has out there. When Dave does that, most of the time the rest of the team follows.”

That effect may have been lessened this season with Vincent Lecavalier and Dan Boyle now established leaders, but Lightning coach John Tortorella is still thrilled to have Andreychuk on the ice and in the locker room.

“Before you get to this stage, the locker room needs to be solid, and Dave is the backbone of the locker room,” Tortorella said. “We’re blessed to have him because he has played so many of these games.”

Although twice as old as some players, Andreychuk hasn’t missed a game and had 21 regular-season goals despite being asked to focus on defense. That’s quite a switch for a player who holds the NHL record with 270 power-play goals, but Andreychuk makes up for his lack of speed and style with a 6-foot-4, 225-pound body that can seem like an octopus to opponents.

“Dave’s not the fastest guy, but he always finds a way to get back into the play by using his 14-foot stick or his size 14 skates,” Richards said.

Said Tortorella: “Dave wasn’t a leader early in his career. All he was concerned with was putting the puck in the net. He never checked. He never came back [to play defense]. He has transformed himself to try to help us be successful.”

The biggest change will come when Andreychuk takes off the skates for the last time — and his contract expires after the season. He wants to keep playing but has yet to talk to his family or to general manager Jay Feaster about his future. And then there’s the tantalizing “what if?” possibility.

“I knew going into the playoffs that this was going to be one of my best shots to win the Cup,” Andreychuk said. “I’m still playing to fill that hole in my career. I haven’t thought about what I would do if we do win the Cup, but I guess retiring would be fitting.”

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