The Tampa Bay Lightning saved their best defensive effort for last in the Stanley Cup finals, managing their emotions, eliminating mistakes and generally doing a masterful job against the Calgary Flames. The Lightning held the Flames to just eight shots through the first two periods, and Tampa's miscues over the course of the entire game can be counted on one hand.
The Lightning did a great job against Calgary captain Jarome Iginla for the second straight game, and Iginla helped that by failing to play like the raging bull many expected. Tampa Bay got the defensive pairing of Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor on the ice against Iginla in nearly every even-strength situation, and they were monsters when they had to be.
But Iginla did not make them work as hard as the Flames would have liked and it was surprising how little he made himself noticed over the first two periods. He came on in the third, but in the end Iginla was a microcosm of his team's too little, too late effort in Game 7.
Calgary got back into the game on an opportunity it shouldn't have gotten. Nolan Pratt was the victim of an awful interference penalty near his own goal midway through the third period. Without the ensuing power play goal the game might have ended 2-0. But make no mistake about it, the charging call on Calgary's Andrew Ference with just over a minute to go was the right one. Ference took Martin St. Louis out from behind and hit him in the face with his stick, effectively ending Calgary's comeback chances. It was a dangerous play and a penalty that had to be called.
In the end, Tampa Bay's star players made the difference. We didn't see much of an effort from Ruslan Fedotenko, Fredrik Modin, Vincent Lecavalier or Cory Stillman in Games 5 and 6, but all four showed up tonight, especially Lecavalier.
Lecavalier played well defensively and displayed physical determination all night. Not only was he a force away from the puck, but he was also strong with the puck on his stick. He was willing to pay the price all night and was perhaps the most effective player on the ice for Tampa Bay, even considering Fedotenko's two goals.
The difference for Tampa Bay over the last two games was putting the clamps on Jarome Iginla. The Lightning struggled to do that over the first five games of the series, but playing a team that many times in a row teaches a team how to handle certain players. Tampa finally decided it was going to make someone else step up for Calgary, and no one really did.
Jassen Cullimore, Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor were terrific defensively against Iginla, and the Lightning forwards were good on the backcheck which allowed them to always have at least two players shadowing him. Iginla is the Flames' heart and soul, their go-to guy, but he was held without a shot in Game 7.
The player who made things go offensively early on for Tampa Bay was Brad Richards. He picked up another assist in Game 7 on his way to winning the Conn Smythe. He made some good moves in the Calgary zone and settled things down when the Lightning looked a little nervous. Vincent Lecavalier took over from there, playing the body all night and making a beautiful pass to Ruslan Fedotenko on Tampa's second goal. And Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin didn't see a lot of shots but was spectacular when he had to be.
This Stanley Cup was a total team effort. Richards was the most consistent player for the Lightning, but it seemed that every night someone new kicked in a big effort. When the Tampa players look each other in the eye at the end of the night they will know every man in the dressing room pulled his weight.
Although Nikolai Khabibulin was not tested heavily in Game 7 he was sharp throughout. Khabibulin faced just eight shots through the first two periods, prompting me to joke to colleague Barry Melrose that I could have played goal for Tampa Bay to start Game 7.
Khabibulin made big saves when needed, including a couple of gems on Jordan Leopold in the third period that helped preserve the victory. The first was a pad save on a rebound attempt to Khabibulin's left and the second was on a long slapshot through traffic.
Khabibulin has always been thought of as a goaltender with huge capabilities and potential but was always a rung below the top-tier NHL goalies. That has changed now. Khabibulin has worked hard to get where he's at and shown he belongs among the league's best netminders.
As for Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, he struggled over the last three game as Tampa Bay did a good job of moving the puck from side to side and making him spread himself out. Any goaltender is going to have a harder time with those kinds of chances as opposed to straight ahead shots against which he can maintain his angle, and as a result the little things in Kiprusoff's game started to falter and he showed a bit of fatigue late in the series.
But Kiprusoff has had a tremendous year and has grown a lot as a goaltender. Few believe this was a fluke run for him. Kiprusoff will be around the NHL for a long time.