Lightning better equipped for title
TAMPA, Fla. -- The better team won.
Slice it, dice it, cut up referee Kerry Fraser, the NHL's video replay system or even the idea of hockey in a city so far removed from the game's roots that they had to explain the concept of indoor ice, but the Tampa Bay Lightning earned the right to be called Stanley Cup champions.
They beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 Monday in the St. Pete Times Forum and won the Stanley Cup finals, 4-3. Say what you will about the sideshows and controversies that always seem to engulf the NHL's championship series, the Lightning's numerous advantages were simply too much for the Flames to overcome.
Look at the facts:
As good as it was on both sides, Tampa Bay's was better when it mattered most. Nikolai Khabibulin outlasted and outplayed Miikka Kiprusoff through the final two games. He outlasted him in the pivotal Game 6, winning in double overtime in Calgary's best chance to win the series. He outplayed him in the clincher, turning aside 16 of 17 shots, including nine of 10 in the third period, in a dominating performance.
While Khabibulin lived up to his nickname, the "Bulin Wall," especially when the series went into elimination mode, Kiprusoff began giving up the type of goals that are often attributed to fatigue, the kind where he didn't get out to the top of the crease fast enough or wasn't able to control the initial shot.
Kiprusoff played extremely well, but Khabibulin played better when it meant the most.
If they gave out medals for courage and determination in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flames would be standing atop some sort of podium waiting to receive their due. But as the series went along, the Lightning were able to match Calgary's physical play with some genuine physical effort of their own. Once that played to even, the Lightning simply had more weapons designed to facilitate Calgary's ultimate demise.
They had more offense -- more when they put their best offensive players, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, on one line, more when they were able to break them up and more through the ranks. It was never more noticeable than in Game 7 when Ruslan Fedotenko broke through for two goals and four others contributed the assists.
A good team can check a top line right out of a game and sometimes right out of a series, but Tampa Bay is more than just a one-line team. Coach John Tortorella simply had too many options and too many ways to use them for Calgary coach Darryl Sutter to counter.
Dave Andreychuk didn't score a goal in the series, but that didn't mean the Flames didn't have to be wary every time the perennial 20-goal scorer was on the ice.
Fedotenko gave the Flames fits with his speed and ability to get to the right place at the right time to get his shot away. The Flames tried to get physical with the former Philadelphia Flyer and at one point appeared to have him down and out after Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr rubbed him out along the boards in Game 3. Fedotenko missed Game 4, but eventually shrugged off the hit and played his best games of the series down the stretch.
Calgary's was good, rugged, poised in its own end, and smart when moving the puck out. Tampa Bay matched that, and also got some offensive play out of its blue line. It wasn't a lot, but the Lightning defense got more shots through to the net than their Calgary counterparts.
There are teams, even teams that get to this point in the playoffs, that are inflexible and fail to adapt to changing conditions. Tampa isn't one of those teams. When the Flames opted to match up Jarome Iginla with Lecavalier, Tortorella and associate coach Craig Ramsay first matched it and later attacked it. Later, they changed the matchup and found ways to neutralize Iginla's strengths, rendering him a non-factor in Games 6 and 7 after a Game 5 performance that placed him en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The coaches were also smart in moving Richards all over the ice. At times he played center, other times he was on the wing or the off wing. He set up Fedotenko's first goal with a blast from the right point, where the Flames lost him during a power play.
Tampa also negated Calgary's admittedly weak power play and eventually solved a very skilled and determined penalty-killing unit. The Lightning scored two power-play goals in their Game 6 win at Calgary and got the all-important first goal in Game 7 on the man advantage.
The Lightning even found a way to negate Calgary's flip play, a high dump-in pass that gave them fits in the early going. They countered by getting on the Calgary players quicker so that they couldn't make the play or, if they did flip it in, they'd hold up the forecheckers so their retrieving player could play the puck without being run over or turning it over.
The outcome might have been different had the Flames not started to run out of healthy bodies.
"In the end, we ran out of gas," Sutter said. "Winning Game 5 actually hurt us more than it helped us, because of the injuries we sustained in it. The longer the series went, the tougher it was going to be."
Not only did the Lightning suffer fewer injuries, they were able to overcome them with more ease. The Lightning only lost Fedotenko and defenseman Pavel Kubina for Game 4. The Flames lost second-line winger Shean Donovan for Games 6 and 7, and Regehr, the Flames' No. 1 defenseman, played the final two games hindered by an injured ankle.
Both teams are low-budget operations, but the Flames have only started their rise to prominence. The Lightning have been building to this moment for several seasons now and have more depth in their organization.
Calgary was thought to be the tougher team physically and mentally, but the Flames weren't able to close the deal on home ice in Game 6 after winning Game 5 in Tampa.
That fourth win is indeed the toughest to get, but it was the Lightning, not the Flames who proved to be the most resilient team in that game. They rebounded from a flat performance in Game 5 and carried the play to the Flames through most of Game 6. The Lightning scored the all-important first goal, then stared down Iginla and the Flames in the overtime sessions until St. Louis found a way to break free of his check and rip a shot past Kiprusoff for the game winner. It takes a certain amount of mental toughness not to fade in the face of an elimination game, especially on the road. The Lightning bent in that game, twice surrendering the lead, but in the end it wasn't the Lightning that faltered, it was the Flames.
"You have to do whatever it takes to win," St. Louis said. "We had to play with grit and we did that. We had to play tough and we did that. And sometimes, we had to play dirty and I thought we did that when we had to, too.
"Maybe people didn't think we could do that, but we did."
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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