TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Lightning finally got a chance to celebrate their Stanley Cup victory with their fans.

The Lightning raised a giant championship banner during an emotional ceremony, and then began the defense of their title with a 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Vinny Prospal scored on the Lightning’s first shot of the season and assisted on goals by Dan Boyle and Vincent Lecavalier to help the Lightning build a 4-2 lead in the club’s first regular-season outing since beating Calgary in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals 16 months ago.

Tim Taylor and Stanley Cup MVP Brad Richards also scored for the Lightning. John Grahame stopped 24 shots in his first start since the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin, who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Radim Vrbata scored an unassisted goal for Carolina in the first period. The Hurricanes also got an unassisted goal from Eric Staal to trim Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-2 early in the second period.

A sellout crowd of 22,120 stood and cheered throughout a 10-minute pregame ceremony in which players, coaches and key members of the front office, including owner Bill Davidson in a rare visit for a regular-season game, were introduced individually.

The Lightning also showcased a dazzling collection of individuals awards won during the 2003-04 season, including trophies for league MVP and scoring champion (Martin St. Louis), Stanley Cup MVP (Richards) and coach of the year (John Tortorella).

“It was a terrific ceremony. And what was particularly impressive was when you look at the array of trophies that were accumulated during the Stanley Cup run,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Tampa Bay had quite a season. It was emotional for everybody, including me. It’s great to be back.”

Fans who couldn’t get tickets were invited to watch the game on a big-screen television outside the arena, and the B-52s entertained early arrivers during a pregame concert on the plaza.

Of course the party wouldn’t have been complete without the Stanley Cup, which was brought out last and placed on a stand in front of the team. The crowd roared again when the players removed two curtains cloaking the banner before it was hoisted to the rafters.

Prospal scored 81 seconds into the game, beating Martin Gerber after Ruslan Fedotenko stole a pass behind the net and centered the puck.

Gerber, obtained in a trade from Anaheim in June 2004, was lifted from his Hurricanes debut after stopping 15 of 19 shots in the first two periods. Cam Ward replaced him and gave up Taylor’s goal with just over three minutes left.

AP-ES-10-05-05 2231EDT


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