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The game behind the card: Daren Puppa edition

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An indepth look at a 24-year-old card

Daren Puppa Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As the resident hockey card collector here at Raw Charge, I feel it’s my job to clog your timeline with random posts about outdated pieces of cardboard from time to time. It’s been awhile since I’ve had something to write about it. Luckily, a recent online trade solved that dilemma.

I was recently looking to add to the Lightning collection (1811 cards and counting) and stumbled across this beauty.

Daren Puppa makes a save against.....
JustinG. Personal Collection

I’m a sucker for netcam photos and since this featured the first great netminder in Tampa Bay Lightning history, I had to pick it up. When setting up the deal, I didn’t even notice where the action was taking place (the thumbnail photos are small). So when I received it in the mail, imagine my delight when I found out that the photo showcased the greatest hockey arena of all time - The Thunderdome!

Look at that three-tiered deck. Admire those wonderful catwalks. It may not be the perfect Lightning card, but it’s pretty darn close. As I was flipping it around, I wondered if it would be possible to pinpoint exactly when this photo was taken. Was there enough detail to figure out when the game was played?

The answer is - yes!

Let’s start with the basics - the year of the card. It is a 1996-97 Pinnacle base card. Made at the tail end of the mass-produced era of sports trading cards, Pinnacle was considered a semi-higher end set made to compete with Upper Deck. It usually featured a glossy finish, and used photos that were often more than the run of the mill stock photos of a player skating or a goaltender just standing around.

Since it was released for the 1996-97 season, we know that the photo used was from the previous year - 1995-96. That happened to be the year the Lightning made it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and the subject of the card, Puppa, was the main reason why.

Other than that we know that it was played in St. Petersburg due to the the fact it was at the Trop Thunderdome and the Lightning are wearing their home whites. Yes, I believe the NHL should return to wearing the white uniforms at home, don’t @ me.

Other than that, there aren’t really any clues that stand out. Due to the angle of the photo or through airbrushing, the giant scoreboard at the top of the card gives us no clues other than the fact that Coca-Cola and Budweiser were sponsors of the team. Should the Rays bring back the giant video board and have it hang over the pitching mound? Yes, they should, it would add an element of chaos to baseball that I would desperately enjoy.

The two skaters in the back are unidentifiable no matter how much you enhance the picture. Based on the seemingly lackluster effort at defense displayed by the one closest to Puppa, I thought that the photo may have been taken during the pregame warmup.

Then I noticed one little detail. Between Puppa’s left arm and leg pad, not only do you see the puck, there is also the slightest hint of a players red sock. So not only was this a clue that the action took place during an actual game, it gives a hint as to who the opponent is.

According to NHLuniforms.com, six teams featured predominantly red socks in their uniforms. They were the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, and New Jersey Devils. However, only one team featured the white and black striping you can see in the photo - the Chicago Blackhawks.

Aha! Progress. Not only progress, but a way to narrow it down to a specific game. The Lightning and the Blackhawks met twice that year. Once on October 19th in Chicago (4-1 Lightning victory) and then again on March 5th, 1996 in St. Petersburg in front of 19,008 rabid Lightning fans.

That’s right, exactly twenty-four years ago to the day!

The Lightning won that game 2-0 and it was notable for a couple of reasons. First, with the win, Puppa tied the franchise record for wins for a goaltender in a season with 22. Second, the victory was the organization’s 100th victory overall. Pretty nifty, eh?

According to a St. Petersburg Times article following the game^, Chicago was scuffling a bit when they came into town. Their leading scorer, Jeremy Roenick, was out with a leg injury and the team had a four-game road losing streak. They would lose Patrick Poulin, a winger who would be traded to the Lightning a few weeks later, to a back injury after Alex Selivanov checked him into the boards early in the game.

Meanwhile, the Lightning were riding high. It was their first game back in the Thunderdome following a two-week road trip and the win ran their 10 game record to 8-1-1, which was good enough to boost them into sole possession of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.

Puppa ran his personal unbeaten streak to nine games (7-0-2) and it would be the first of two consecutive shutouts for him - a feat that earned him player of the week honors despite playing only two games that week. Why did he only play two? Because in between shutouts, he was at the hospital. No, not for back surgery. He was there to see the birth of his daughter.

In the game against Chicago, Puppa made twenty saves while the offense was supplied by Roman Hamrlik. The fourth-year defenseman netted both goals, one of them on the power play.

So we know which game, but can we determine exactly when in the game it happened and which Blackhawks player is Puppa denying with his blocker? Sadly, that cannot be 100% confirmed, but we can speculate based on the reports of the game.

With only twenty shots on net, it wasn’t exactly the most dominating effort on the Blackhawk’s behalf. A couple of the game write-ups mention that their best chance came in the third period when Denis Savard deflected a shot on net and then had a rebound follow-up attempt. Could the photo have captured Savard’s rebound attempt? That would explain why the anonymous Lightning defender is so far away from the play.

Sadly, despite many attempts ,I was unable to find any photographic evidence to confirm the play in question. I had a brief bit of hope as both the St. Pete Times and the Chicago papers had a caption depicting a play between Savard and Puppa, but it happened in the first period. I did find an actual photo of the play (despite not living in Chicago for two years, I still have access to their online Chicago Tribune micofilm archive) and it’s definitely not from this play. Savard is further to the side of the net and turned the opposite direction.

Therefore, I can only assume it’s Savard vs. Puppa in the photo. Still, it’s a pretty neat record of a rather historic game in Lightning history.

UPDATE!

As reader Matt B. pointed out - there is another clue that may invalidate the whole Savard theory. You can see the Blackhawks player’s helmet in the photo and it’s not a Jofa lid, which Savard was known to wear. Back to the drawing board!

Bonus Thunderdome photo. It’s Patrick Roy!

^ Buckley, T. (1996, Mar 06). Lightning blows away Chicago: [ 3 Early Tampa Edition 1] St. Petersburg Times Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.slcpl.org/docview/263146522?accountid=3357