Cup finals a game of 'Survivor'
TAMPA, Fla. -- When it comes to hockey, the truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
With that in mind, here is one version of the truth on a variety of topics surrounding the Stanley Cup finals between the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Consider it a primer for what is now a best-of-three series for hockey's ultimate prize.
Let's start with the idea -- once espoused by your now humble author -- that this would be an entertaining and fast-paced series, a noteworthy departure from check-'till-you-drop hockey that has bee exhibited in past Cup finals. This was, after all, a series that featured two teams that skate well and go to the net hard. In addition, the Lightning showed explosive ability to score goals.
Through the first four games, it's been a great deal less. The Lightning's offense has dwindled, seemingly in every game, and not just because the Flames are taking out Tampa's best players one by one. The Flames also have embraced a variation of the dreaded trap. It's not a hard-core case of neutral zone trapping that bored us to tears in the showdown between the New Jersey Devils and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim last spring, but it's a clever little ditty that actually plays off what Tampa does in its own zone.
If the puck is loose or can be run down in the corners in the Tampa end, Calgary forechecks aggressively. That's the way the Flames usually play and it's why a more wide-open, free-skating affair was anticipated.
But as Tampa coach John Tortorella noted in his cryptic "they've gotten much more defensive as the series has gone on" remark, it's a changed game now.
Calgary often lays off the forecheck and reads off Tampa Bay's defensemen. Lightning defensemen often throw cross-ice passes in their own zone to facilitate their break out plays. When the Calgary forwards see that, they'll send in just one forechecker to force the pass, then set the trap for the Lightning receiver as he attempts to come out the other side. It's a complicated read, said a coach not associated with either team, but it's been happening a lot in the series. This "soft trap" slows Tampa's skating game while allowing Calgary to attack off the transition should they force the defensemen to surrender the puck between the blue line and the red line. It worked well in Calgary's Game 3 shutout and resulted in several scoring chances in Game 4. The Lightning got a bit of a handle on it in Game 4 and were chipping the puck out of their zone rather than try to pass it out.
Tampa won, but it made for an ugly game.
Another issue that has moved to the forefront is the officiating. The perception from the Calgary side of the ice is that it was out of control in Game 2 (a 4-1 Tampa Bay win) under referees Stephen Walkom and Brad Watson, and got even worse in Game 4 (a 1-0 Tampa Bay win) when the crew of Kerry Fraser and Watson awarded the Lightning a five-on-three power play early in the game. The duo also was blamed by Calgary fans for taking the Flames out of contention with a five-minute major to Ville Nieminen for attempting to wallpaper Vincent Lecavalier to what appears to be non-stick glass in the Calgary Saddledome.
the truth is ... well, nothing can be further from the truth on this one.
Through the four games, the Flames have taken several physical liberties in their game of attrition. Tampa has many skilled players, Calgary has many hard workers. Sending skilled players to the training room is an equalizer tactic and an accepted one in many circles. It's also a reason many people have stopped watching hockey, but that's a column for another time.
Since Tampa has already lost skilled players in Ruslan Fedotenko and Pavel Kubina, through big -- and some would argue dirty -- hits, taking a shot at knocking out Vincent Lecavalier simply is good strategy on behalf of the Flames. Sure the coaches will shake their heads and bemoan the calls and, truth be told, Nieminen's hit on Lecavalier was ill-timed given the circumstances, but Calgary knows the Stanley Cup sometimes isn't awarded to who won but to who survived. In the early rounds, the Flames pounded on the Vancouver Canucks, and harder on the skilled Detroit Red Wings.
Lest we forget, Nieminen took a skate-by shot at Wings goaltender Curtis Joseph and go a one-game suspension for it.
Despite Sutter's argument that it was all about speed, their pounding on their next opponent, the San Jose Sharks, was so apparent it prompted one nationally known commentator in Canada to liken the Flames to the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s, also known as the Broad Street Bullies.
If Nieminen had (or has) seriously injured Lecavalier with his most recent hit, well, that's sad, but it's also hockey. Even if Lecavalier returns for Game 5 while Nieminen sits, it's still worth it to the Flames. If Lecavalier, perhaps still feeling the effects of the unforgiving glass, tends to shy away from the high-traffic, high-scoring areas, then the strategy worked and the gap between the teams' skill level has been closed slightly.
While many argue that intimidation shouldn't be a part of hockey, it's certainly a part of this series. It's why Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Lecavalier engaged in fisticuffs in Game 3.
Iginla is big and tough and a darn good fighter, as well as a great goal scorer. If Sutter had sent, say, Chris Simon (72 playoff penalty minutes to date) or Krzysztof Oliwa (a noted fighter, but a player who's averaging just under four minutes of ice time a game) out to engage Lecavalier, the officials would have been on it so quick it would barely be allowed to happen. By allowing Iginla to involve himself, Sutter plays a calculated but odds-in-favor risk. His star knows how to fight, the other team's star isn't as adept. The officials see it as an even-up fight talentwise and let them have at it. Sutter knows the chances are good his player doesn't get hurt, but if the other one does, the war of attrition/intimidation goes in his favor.
This is not new. It's been going on almost as long as the game itself.
The Lightning have not always been sparkling clean, either. They have, however, been smart.
On the early plays in Game 4 that led to the five-on-three power play and the game's only goal, Sutter made the classic protest: "What's a penalty on the second shift is not a penalty on the first," he bemoaned. "A penalty on the second shift, not a penalty in the third period. Whatever."
No duh, Darryl.
The rules are different in the playoffs. It's something everyone in the game knows and lives by. It's also known with drop-dead certainty that what's a penalty in the early part of the game is often overlooked in the later stages, and that players who retaliate are penalized more often than those who initiate. The Lightning know that, as well, and that's where their coaching has shone through.
Calgary players took to the rough and tumble early in the game, when officials like to set a tone. Chris Clark and Mike Commodore were called for the kinds of infractions that surely would have been overlooked later in the fray. The Lightning, to their credit, did not react, leaving the Flames two men down.
Brad Richards, the Lightning's leading playoff scorer, converted the opportunity. And though the Flames had 57 minutes to at least even the score, they did not. The all-important first goal -- the first team to score has won every game in the series -- again held sway.
The Lighting know that. It's why they're trying so hard to keep their cool and their skilled players on the ice.
What the series comes down to now is how well either side does what it's done so far.
If the Flames continue to either stifle or knock out Tampa's offensive might, they will win. If the Lightning continue to take the hits and keep firing, they will win.
Truth is, from this point on, everything else is just talk.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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