Lightning prove critics wrong ... again

Updated: May 28, 2004, 11:45 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said after his team's 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals that their second outing would be a "must win" and that if they lost "it wouldn't be the end of the world, but you could see it from there."

Suddenly, their view has improved.

A 4-1 triumph on the heels of a 4-1 loss can do that.

There was a sense coming into these playoffs, and especially this series, that somehow little Tampa Bay wasn't good enough. All of Canada seemed to claim the Flames as winners, even before the series started. And on the eve of the series a national newspaper in the United States went so far as to characterize both teams as "long shots."

It's an understandable tag for the Flames, who finished sixth in the Western Conference. But the Lightning? They finished first in the Eastern Conference and chased the Detroit Red Wings for first in the NHL right down to the final week of the regular season.

It gets worse whenever Tampa loses a game in the playoffs, even though the Lightning have three fewer playoff losses than the Flames and had the best regular-season winning percentage of any team.

"It's something we've dealt with all season," said Tampa Bay associate coach Craig Ramsay. "When we played Philadelphia, the Flyers would lose a game and people would say they played well. We would lose a game and people questioned our ability and sometimes our character."

No matter what the outcome of this series, that should stop now.

Tampa's best offensive players -- Andreychuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko, along with goalie Nikolai Khabibulin -- were dominant in Game 2. The four forwards figured in virtually every scoring play. They were all physical.

And Lecavalier, who contributed little in Game 1, set the bar incredibly high with a series of hits and then leapt it in a single bound, executing a spin-around pass off the back of the goal to himself and setting up Tampa's first goal. The move left both benches and the 22,000-plus in attendance in awe.

Khabibulin made 18 saves and turned in yet another outing allowing one goal or less, which he has done after four of his five playoff losses this season.

The defense, described by some as suspect in relation to the level of play from the rest of the team, produced a goal, was both physical and smart, and did a much better job of keeping Calgary's offensive star, Jarome Iginla, from getting to the net. In addition, Tampa's power play was relentless and its penalty killing superb, especially in the early going when the Flames seemed to be beneficiaries of suspect refereeing.

Oh, and one more thing: If there were any lingering questions about the grit, character and "intangibles" of what is still a very young Lightning team, they too were answered.

"It's been a learning process," Ramsay said. "This is something John (Tortorella) and I started when we got here three years ago. We kept telling them that if they wanted to be a good team, they had to earn it. They had to earn their wins and earn their respect, because no one was going to give it to them.

"We challenged them to just shut their mouths, work hard and earn their wins. We told them to stop complaining to the referees when things don't go their way, and to stop whining for respect and start making their own respect."

Said Tortorella: "I think they've accepted that challenge."

There is no underestimating the importance of that, and not just because they tied the series. The Lightning were so thoroughly beaten in Game 1 that their ability to respond was questioned. Iginla was touted as the best player in the world.

Lecavalier and Richards, the Lightning's most talented offensive players, were asked if they were committed to paying the price to win. St. Louis, the Lightning's most effective forward, was asked what was missing from his game. Khabibulin's ability to bounce back from a loss was again up for debate.

The defense was called out for not being nearly as physical as Calgary's, and was tagged with the burden of being the difference.

That might still happen. But for Game 2, the Lightning played like the No. 1 seed they are.

Khabibulin faced just 19 shots. He credited the physical play of his defensemen and the forwards' commitment to coming back to help as the difference in the game.

"Everyone was physical ... I think that was the difference in the game," he said. "The defense played very well in front of me, and we played very well defensively as a team. We told ourselves after the first game that we had to work harder, especially on defense, and I think we did that from the beginning tonight."

There is still a great deal of what is likely to be great hockey left, and the outcome of this series is very much in doubt. But whatever happens to the Lightning the rest of the way, no one should question their character, their ability or their determination to win games.

They may not be the best team in the world, but you can see them getting there from here.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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