TAMPA, Fla. - Phil Esposito has a confession to make: Yes, he is rooting for the Lightning, the team he played a key role in founding, to win the NHL Eastern Conference final.

But he still has a soft spot for its opponent in the series.

"Look, I'm not going to deny it: If the Lightning don't win I would love to see the Rangers win [the Stanley Cup]," the former Rangers player, coach, GM and TV analyst said before Game 2 Monday as he sat in the visiting radio booth at the Garden.

Esposito, 73, rarely travels these days for his job as Tampa Bay's radio analyst, but he is making an exception during these playoffs, and the fact they led him to a relatively rare visit to New York was a bonus.

The Hall of Famer spent nearly two decades in the area and marvels at all that has changed, and some that hasn't.

"I'm impressed with the new Garden, or whatever you want to call it -- the refurbished Garden," he said. "The fans are still the same, very knowledgeable. You can't fool them. If a player is not playing well they know it and give it to you."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Is he ever recognized on the streets of Manhattan?

"When people see me now they look twice, because my hair is white and they say: 'Phil Rizzuto!' '' he said, laughing. "I've been called Phil Rizzuto so many times. Yeah, I get recognized a little bit. I don't sign a lot of autographs anymore because I think it's for the other guys, the kids. I've signed enough in my day."

Esposito long since has become a Floridian, "happier than hell" since marrying his third wife in 1999 and in relatively good physical shape for an old hockey player.

"I feel great," he said. "I'm glad I don't live here [in New York] anymore or I'd be dead, especially if [former teammate and MSG analyst Ron] Duguay was around. He looks great, by the way. Doogs keeps himself fit. He eats like a sparrow sometimes. He eats the right foods, there's no doubt about that.

"I'll eat and drink what the hell I feel like and when it goes, it goes."

Espo had back surgery a couple of years ago, but he ignored doctors when they told him he needed knee and hip replacement surgery. "My knees and hips are fine," he said.

On his 70th birthday he put on skates and equipment for what he said would be the last time in a pickup game with Lightning officials.

"Once I got on the ice I loved it and never came off for over one-and-a-half hours," he said, "but then I said I'm not going to do this anymore. It's too much work to put the [expletive] on."

Speaking of expletives, there are many of them in a conversation with Esposito, in addition to a wealth of hockey stories going back decades.

Although he never won a Cup as a Rangers player from 1975-81 -- the team did reach the Final in 1979 -- he won two with the Bruins in the early 1970s and then in 2004 watched with pride as the Lightning won their first and so far only one, with Esposito on the radio call.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Very, very proud," he said. "When they won the Stanley Cup I thought they graduated, and this is my kid. I gave birth to this team. And I thought, my Lord, how good is this? How good is this? It was fabulous."

The Lightning and Rangers never have met in the playoffs before. The Bolts premiered for the 1992-93 season. A year later, the Rangers won the Cup, and Esposito was thrilled from afar.

"I thought that was a great thing," he said. "I was happy the Rangers finally won a Stanley Cup -- and that nobody from Long Island can say '1940' again."