This year's finals of mostly local interest

Originally Published: June 6, 2004
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- It could be the most dramatic conclusion imaginable to the the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Or it could be a snoozer.

Even if Game 7 Monday night between the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning turns out to be a spectacular night of hockey, it's doubtful that the overall series will be remembered with particular fondness anywhere but in the two cities involved.

To be sure, having both Games 5 and 6 go to overtime has added excitement to the series and produced legitimate playoff heroes in Calgary's Oleg Saprykin and Tampa's diminutive Martin St. Louis.

Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis
APBrad Richards and Martin St. Louis both performed like big-game big names in Game 6.
But the first four games of the series were dreadful, particularly from an artistic standpoint. The series has been painfully low-scoring, with only 24 goals scored in six games, a per game average of fully one goal below the league average during the regular season. In every single game, the team that has scored first has won, and there hasn't been an actual lead change in over 395 minutes of bruising competition.

At times, it has been fun. But it hasn't been a gem.

As a series, it has been, at best, energetic but pedestrian, albeit giving the league the prize of a seventh match in the Stanley Cup finals for the third time in four years.

That's not to say it hasn't been a gripping series for the teams involved and their fans. Calgary, after missing the playoffs for seven years, came out of nowhere to beat Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose to get to the finals, and in so doing embraced the mantle of "Canada's team" in some corners.

The Lightning, meanwhile, finally shook off the reputation as one of the worst franchises in pro sports to finish first in the Eastern Conference during the regular season and then work their way past the Islanders, Canadiens and Flyers to meet Calgary.

In terms of wins and losses, the series has gone back and forth, with neither team able to win two in a row.

"It's amazing, the emotional ups and downs of the playoffs," Calgary captain Jarome Iginla said Sunday. "And it's been that way all through the playoffs. [Saturday night] was a tough night. But [Sunday] we all woke up excited."

Individually, there have been some terrific stories. Both Iginla and Brad Richards of the Lightning have established themselves as bona fide NHL stars. Iginla, with little offensive support, leads the playoffs with 13 goals and seems a shoo-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP if the Flames win.

Richards, meanwhile, has four goals in the finals, including two in Game 6, and 12 in total during the playoffs. In games in which he has scored, the Lightning own a remarkable 31-0-2 record during the playoffs and regular season.

Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, who began his NHL career in the same year tennis star Andy Roddick was born, has been a story unto himself as he tries to win a Cup at age 40. Monday night will mark his 1,759th NHL game, counting playoffs and regular season.

"I have been trying to stay composed through the whole thing," Andreychuk said. "Deep down inside, there's a lot of emotion.

"It seems like it's a long time ago when I started and it has taken a while to get here, but I finally have my chance."

With the NHL and its players union both eying a shutdown in the fall, the presence of two low-payroll teams in the finals has added an interesting backdrop to the series. There also has been controversy, with Flames coach Darryl Sutter suggesting the league didn't want his team to win the Cup after Game 4 when Calgary gave up a 5-on-3 goal early and then saw truculent winger Ville Nieminen kicked out late for a hit on Tampa's Vincent Lecavalier.

Game 6 saw more controversy when an apparent tie-breaking goal by Calgary's Martin Gelinas in the third period did not count, although some video replays indicated the puck did cross the line.

There was also a rather unexpected and lively scrap between Iginla and Lecavalier, two of the game's most talked-about young stars.

But despite all of this, and despite the thousands who have gathered on the Red Mile in Calgary after victories and those who congregated outside the St. Pete Times Forum to watch Game 6 on Saturday night, it has not been a final series that has been embraced by a larger North American audience.

In Canada, it has done well in terms of TV ratings, although the notion of Calgary as Canada's team has more to do with the fact no Canadian team has won the Cup since 1993 than any coast-to-coast love affair with the hockey club.

In the U.S., Tampa is a secondary TV market, and the depth of hockey devotion in the area could be measured earlier in the playoffs when 3,500 empty seats greeted the Bolts for a game against Montreal.

In a general sense, the hockey played has highlighted the challenges facing the league rather than brought focus to the speed and skill of the sport.

While the games have been intense and hard-hitting, the current defensive nature of NHL play has meant more of a grinding style of competition as opposed to an attacking, exciting brand of hockey.

Despite all the changes the league has made with refereeing and referees in recent years, meanwhile, the finals have produced another set of games in which obvious penalties have been overlooked time and time again, leaving the entire manner in which the games are officiated confusing to everyone.

The league is looking hard at ways to open up the game, including making goalie equipment smaller and bringing in the shootout to decide tie games during the regular season. Commissioner Gary Bettman hopes that when a new collective bargaining agreement is reached with the players, he'll be able to simultaneously introduce a new style of NHL hockey and thus "relaunch" the sport to its North American audience.

There was hope these finals would give the league a boost, with the Cinderella Flames taking on the high-powered Lightning with their array of skilled offensive players.

That hasn't happened, although Game 7 Monday night has the opportunity to end the season with a bang, at least.

That said, when Colorado and New Jersey met in Game 7 of the 2001 finals, it turned out to be a rather dullish 3-1 victory for the Avalanche that was embellished by the emotion of Ray Bourque winning his first Cup.

In 2003, the Devils and Ducks went to Game 7, with the Devils pounding out an uninteresting 3-0 verdict in the deciding game.

The last top-drawer Game 7 in the finals probably came in 1971, when Henri Richard scored a third-period goal to push Montreal over Chicago. The last Game 7 in the finals to go to OT was 50 years ago, when the Red Wings beat the Habs.

So Game 7, in itself, offers no guarantees, or at least it hasn't recently. Like it or hate it, this series already has established an identity. Unless Game 7 goes to three overtimes or turns into a precedent-setting shootout, Monday probably won't change it.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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