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Patience pays off

Staying the course led to Lightning's surprise Stanley Cup title

Posted: Friday June 11, 2004 5:40PM; Updated: Friday June 11, 2004 5:40PM
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TAMPA, Fla. (SI.com) -- To fully understand how special the Tampa Bay Lightning's run to the Stanley Cup was, consider these facts.

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967. For the Blackhawks, it's been an even more grueling 41-year wait. And the Lightning now have matched the New York Rangers' titles in the past 64 years.

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Move over, Original Six. The new guy has arrived.

But for the last 10 years, there was no room for the little guys in the Stanley Cup finals.

The list of champions was a familiar mix of big-budget and top-talent teams: Detroit (three times), New Jersey (three times), Colorado (twice), Dallas and the New York Rangers.

There were plenty of stars and familiar story lines, but not much unpredictability. Can the Devils win again with their trap? Is this Scotty Bowman's last Cup? Is Patrick Roy the best goalie ever? Brett Hull, are you here again?

The newly minted champion Tampa Bay Lightning changed all that, and in an interesting bit of timing, did so just as the other small- and midmarket teams head into the NHL's labor talks looking for a much better deal.

Under general manager Jay Feaster, just three years removed from running a minor league team in Hershey, Pa., and coach John Tortorella, who was passed over by bigger franchises, the Lightning developed a plan to compete and stayed with it.

The only surprise was how fast it all came together, just a year after the Lightning won a playoff series for the first time.

"I still can't figure it out, how quickly it happened for us," Tortorella said after a Cup-clinching 2-1 victory over Calgary in Game 7 Monday night.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, once so erratic he was seen as more of a problem than a solution, thinks he knows what did it: Doing nothing.

Rather than dismantling the team when they took over, Feaster and Tortorella made a few moves, such as acquiring Ruslan Fedotenko in a much-criticized trade with Philadelphia.

Mostly, they waited for players such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Fedotenko, Pavel Kubina, Khabibulin and Brad Richards to gain confidence and grow comfortable with one another.

When they all arrived about the same time, the Lightning did, too.

St. Louis was the regular-season scoring champion and won the pivotal Game 6 in Calgary with an overtime goal. Lecavalier made a dazzling pass that led to the second of Fedotenko's two goals in Game 7. Richards, Lecavalier's teammate since they were 14, won the Conn Smythe Award as the playoffs MVP.

"I think the most important thing was that the core of the players stayed the same," said Khabibulin, who finally lived up to his nickname of the Bulin Wall with five playoff shutouts. "A lot of the guys matured and became very good players."

The Lightning overcame a midseason slump to win the Eastern Conference regular-season championship, then quickly eliminated the Islanders and Canadiens before the Flyers took them to seven games in a testy and physically demanding conference finals.

Turns out that was just what the Lightning needed to take on the never-take-a-shift-off Flames, who eliminated three division champions and were within one goal in Game 6 of taking out another.

Now, the Flames must live with the unpleasant memory of not winning the Cup even when it was a few feet from them in their own building.

"We were literally one shot away, one second away from winning the Stanley Cup," said Jarome Iginla, the best player in the series for five games but a non-factor in the final two.

What's different now is the Lightning's reign may last more than one season if the anticipated labor impasse shuts down the NHL for the entire 2004-05 season. The current contract expires Sept. 15.

Before the finals, commissioner Gary Bettman warned that medium- or small-market teams could compete only infrequently for the Cup because they could not economically sustain themselves once they did.

Unless the new labor deal changes that, the Lightning may be ready to test Bettman's theory.

Their $34 million payroll ranked close to the league's bottom third until they picked up Darryl Sydor's $3.5 million salary late in the season. Now, Lecavalier's salary is due to go up $1.7 million and the team must decide whether to pick up Khabibulin's $6.5 million option. St. Louis ($1.5 million), Kubina ($2.5 million), forward Fredrik Modin ($1.85 million) and Fedotenko ($950,000) also need new contracts.

The runner-up Flames must decide how much they can add to their $35 million payroll, especially with Iginla ($7.5 million) and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff ($800,000) needing new contracts.

Until the current labor contract expires, the Lightning will have a few months to celebrate.

"We're going to enjoy this for as long as we can," Dan Boyle said.

The rest of the NHL can only hope the Lightning still aren't celebrating this championship a year from now.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.


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