First-period goal charges Lightning

Updated: May 28, 2004, 10:04 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

TAMPA, Fla. -- During this playoff spring, the formula has been simple. If you score the first goal, you win. If you don't, you lose.

On Thursday night, Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames followed the now-familiar script. The Bolts broke the seal at 7:10 of the first period when left wing Ruslan Fedotenko tapped in a rebound of a Jassen Cullimore shot from the top of the left circle. Playing with the lead, the Lightning knotted the series (1-1) with a 4-1 victory.

Including the first two games of the finals, the team that has scored the first goal has won 65 of the 84 postseason games. That's almost an 80 percent success rate for the team that scores first.

"It's big," said Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, when asked about the significance of the first goal. "Up a goal in the Stanley Cup finals, that's important. The stats don't lie. We talk about it all the time.

"You want to jump right into these games," St. Louis continued. "And, it's easier to play with the lead."

In Game 1, the Flames, who've allowed just five first-period goals in 21 postseason games, were able to control the tempo after opening the scoring in the first period. They settled into a neutral zone trap, picking their spots to forecheck. That resulted in a bunch of Lightning turnovers that were translated into scoring chances.

In Game 2, the Lightning seemed to play with more energy and confidence after Fedotenko's goal.

"It definitely gives you lift," says Lightning defenseman Nolan Pratt. "We all know it's important to get off to a good start. Getting that first goal gives you that momentum you want to have in these games."

Flames center Stephane Yelle, playing in his third Cup finals (the first two with the Avalanche), thought his team missed a golden chance to get that all-important first goal.

"We had an early power play and we couldn't take advantage of it," Yelle said. "We got chances on that power play, but we couldn't put it in."

Lightning center Brad Richards also saw that early power play as a somewhat of a turning point.

"Our PK definitely came up big in the first period," Richards said. "Killing that first penalty allowed us to get the first goal. We definitely wanted to get it because we know how good they are playing with the lead."

While no one seems to have any rock-solid explanations as to why the first goal has become so vital to playoff success, Yelle has a theory.

"Playoff hockey is tight hockey," Yelle says. "Getting that first goal is a big boost. If you fall behind by a goal or two, you have to expend a lot of energy to fight back and get even. It's very tough to play from behind."

Flames coach Darryl Sutter echoed Yelle's words.

"In the playoffs, goals are hard to come by," Sutter said. "The teams are checking so well. The deeper you get into the playoffs, the harder it is to score."

Sutter's counterpart, Lightning coach John Tortorella, doesn't see a big difference between the regular season and the playoffs when it comes to the importance of striking the first blow.

"If you look at the regular season, it's probably the same thing," Tortorella said. "It's a tight-checking type situation within the playoffs and that first goal, I think just allows your team to gain some of the momentum. I don't know why it happens that way. But, to me, it's a matter of trying to gain momentum."

The Streak Continues
When Richards scored at the 2:51 mark of the third period to give the Bolts a 2-0 lead, the victory was all but assured. You see, when Richards scores a goal, the Lightning win. With the Game 2 victory, the Lightning are now 29-0-2 (and 7-0 in the playoffs) when Richards nets a goal.

"I can't explain why that is," Richards said. "I don't even want to talk about it."

The goal was Richards' sixth game-winner of the postseason, tying a league playoff record shared by Joe Sakic (Avs, 1996) and Joe Nieuwendyk (Stars, 1999). Richards has played four fewer games that Sakic and five fewer than Nieuwendyk.

"It nice to be mentioned in that company," said Richards when told that he'd tied the mark. "Those guys are great players."

Richards rebounded from a poor performance in Game 1, tallying a goal and an assist, winning 10 of 14 faceoffs, finishing a plus-2 in a team-high 22:54.

"I didn't play well in Game 1," Richards admitted. "I think I was waiting for things to happen. I felt much more comfortable tonight."

Secret Summit?
After the game, when asked about the number of penalties called in the first period, Sutter turned Oliver Stone.

"Obviously there was a summit yesterday or sometime in the last 36 hours in South Florida on something," said Sutter, whose club received four first-period power plays compared with just two for the Lightning.

Asked if he was invited to the "summit," Sutter said: "No, I don't have that degree."

Referees Brad Watson and Stephen Walkom did call a tighter game, but few if any of the calls seemed to be without merit. Walkom also officiated the first game with veteran Bill McCreary.

No Intimidation
If you want to know why St. Louis has become a star in this league, check out this give and take.

Late in the third period, oversized Flames defender Robyn Regehr tried to send a physical message to the pint-sized league scoring leader. The 6-foot-3, 226-pound Regher literally picked St. Louis off his feet and hurled him into the end boards.

Regehr was immediately whistled for a holding penalty, though it could have been many things. When St. Louis got off the deck, Regehr barked a few less than complimentary remarks at the little Lightning right wing.

Standing at least seven inches shorter (and some 40 pounds lighter), St. Louis looked Regher in the eye and said, "I love it."

Yes, St. Louis loves everything about the competition. And hockey fans should love this little guy who wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to a career in the NHL.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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