Iginla's lead lifts Flames to one win from Cup

Updated: June 4, 2004, 2:38 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's safe to say that sometime between the second and third period of Game 5, Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella entered the locker room and explained to his players that if they wanted to win the Stanley Cup, they had to match the play of Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames.

Right then and there.

That the Lightning weren't able to do that Thursday only adds to the growing reputation of Iginla, arguably the best clutch player in the game today. It also adds to the growing reputation of the workaholic Flames, who beat the Lightning 3-2 in overtime Thursday in the St. Pete Times Forum and are now 60 strong minutes away from a championship season.

"You're not going to win a Game 5 in the finals playing 40 minutes like we played tonight," Tortorella said of his team's dismal effort through the first two periods. "We battled back in the third period. We found our game in the third period and we played a pretty decent overtime. But it simply comes back and bites you in the ass when a team simply wins all the battles in the first 40. They were the quicker team and it comes backs and grabs you."

Did he expect anything less?

The Flames have made a habit of winning the pivotal fifth game of a series this postseason. They did it against the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks. Each time they made the road their home and simply outworked their opponents in most every area of the ice.

Iginla set the tone in that regard.

He scored one goal and set up Oleg Saprykin for the game winner, ending overtime at the 14:40 mark. He finished with six shots on goal, each an excellent scoring chance. However no play was better than the one that led to Saprykin's goal.

Tortorella said a turnover up the ice led to the winning goal. But it didn't go unnoticed that Iginla and Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier had been on the ice for a long shift. Lecavalier appeared tired and was looking to get off the ice when Iginla drove hard to the net, an effort that gave Calgary what amounted to a three-on-two opportunity. Iginla, who was double-shifting and playing with his second set of linemates, took a rink-wide pass from Marcus Nilson and put a heavy shot on Nikolai Khabibulin. The goalie stopped the initial shot with his pad, but the rebound shot out directly to the unchecked Saprykin, who had crept to the front of the net and batted it home.

"Olie was banging away in there, right in front of the net," Iginla said. "He deserved that goal. He played so hard all night, was banging all night, physical, skating and it was just so good to see that, him get that goal."

Be that as it may, it was an all-world performance by Iginla, who is skating past Lecavalier and some of the other Tampa Bay scorers and toward the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. Iginla now leads the playoffs with 13 goals and is tied with Tampa Bay's Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis for the points lead with 22 points.

More importantly, Iginla has nine goals and five assists in the nine games the Flames have played after a loss.

That's the definition of a clutch performer. Marry that to the overall work ethic of the Flames, and it's not surprising that Calgary is one win a way from the franchise's first Cup since 1989.

"At the end, we were rewarded," said Flames coach and general manager Darryl Sutter. "We didn't feel, coming into this game, that we did enough around their net in terms of rebounding and getting screens, and that's exactly how we scored, with a rebound."

That's got to rankle the Lightning, a team that on this night at least did not pay the price to win.

Iginla is always quick to defuse praise and credit teammates, but it's useless. His reputation is soaring and there appears no end in sight.

"This is probably one of the most exciting days right now," said Iginla. "I mean to see that goal ... it was one of the most exciting goals. The whole playoffs we have had some overtime wins and some big goals. It just seems that each game has gotten more exciting to be a part of it, each win, it is a step closer."

"He found his second gear in overtime," Sutter said of Iginla. "That's, again, something that comes from way down inside there somewhere."

Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, Iginla has made it his own.

And that he and the Flames can find it in themselves to do it seemingly every time it matters most was the difference in this game.

If they can find it one more time, it may well be the difference in the series.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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