Tampa Bay has too much firepower for feel-good Calgary to withstand
Posted: Monday May 24, 2004 11:02AM; Updated: Monday May 24, 2004 3:19PM
No. 1Tampa Bay vs. No. 6Calgary Stanley Cup Finals
Martin St. Louis scored four goals in 69 games with Calgary from 1998-2000. He netted three in Tampa Bay's 6-2 win over the Flames on Jan. 24.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
The matchup, without a big-name team like the Flyers, may not look like much -- but this series has all the elements to be the best Stanley Cup Finals in years. This will not be a replay of last year's Ducks-Devils mudfest, but rather a series full of high speed, sharp puck movement, big hits and late-game drama.
The Lightning come at you and come at you some more. Their explosive offense -- don't blink or you'll miss a breakaway -- isn't just about Hart Trophy candidate Martin St. Louis, emerging superstar Vincent Lecavalier or aggressive shooter Brad Richards. It's also about Fredrik Modin's hard shot, and the goal-scoring wiles of Ruslan Fedotenko. Calgary's defense never will be safe from the Lightning's high-flying, opportunistic forwards. The Flames continue to be led by Jarome Iginla, who scored crucial goals to beat the Sharks and is the clear Conn Smythe favorite should the Flames win the Cup. While Iginla is the best player in this series (maybe in the NHL) and is essential to Calgary's offensive success, the Flames also can set the tempo with the fast, hard-checking line of Ville Nieminen, Marcus Nilson and Shean Donovan.
Tampa Bay's core is underrated and it showed good poise in sealing off the Flyers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Led by Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor, it's not an overly physical group, and the Lightning need to be prepared to block a lot of shots in this series. One of the players who'll be winding up to let slap shots fly is the Flames' Robyn Regehr, the dynamite defenseman who is showing why he's likely to be an All-Star for the next decade. Regehr's physical style is echoed in the punishing hits that Andrew Ference and the rest of the Flames' defense lay on at every turn. The Lightning forwards have been unafraid to go to the net this entire postseason, but if any team can make them think twice about doing so, it's Calgary.
The two best goaltenders in the playoffs have made it to the finals. Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin was almost flawless in the first two rounds, and after some shaky moments against the Flyers, he rebounded to turn in a terrific Game 7. When Khabibulin is on, as he has been much of the playoffs, he allows very few rebounds, which will hurt the Flames' offense, which does its best work while cycling the puck. Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff had a very rough stretch over a couple of games against the Sharks, but he, too, came back to settle in and be his dominating self. Kiprusoff has a slightly wider range of performance than Khabibulin -- when he's at his best, he seems completely impenetrable; when he struggles, the Lightning could jump on him quick. Kiprusoff handles the puck well, but he needs to be careful of Tampa Bay's forwards sneaking up on him when he strays from the cage.
Both coaches are extremely strong leaders and have dictated the mood and the behavior of their respective teams. Tampa Bay's John Tortorella has adjusted well each time the Lightning have been tested. He's not afraid to stand up to and for his players. The Flames' Darryl Sutter simply won't ever let the fire die in the Flames' collective belly. If you stint on effort for even a moment, Sutter will come after you. Calgary embodies his spirit.
Scorching -- that's what the Lightning's power play was against Philadelphia. The attributes of speed and crisp puck movement that make the Lightning dangerous at even strength are intensified dramatically when they have the man advantage. The Flames need to stop Tampa Bay's power play early in games so that the Lightning don't get even more confident than they already are. One way to blunt that confidence would be for Calgary to score short-handed, and it is able to do that with Iginla and center Craig Conroy. The Lightning are a threat short-handed as well, and will be willing to take chances to score when they are a man down, because the Flames' power play is not particularly intimidating.
Tampa Bay may be playing for all the boys down at the marina, but Calgary is playing for a nation. And Hockey Nation, at that. The Flames have all of Canada behind them (perhaps even Quebec) and will take the mission to bring home the Cup to heart. The Flames also are a club that feeds off of big hits and can win as easily on the road as it can at home.
This will be an even series with numerous momentum swings along the way. Tampa Bay is the better overall team, Calgary the sentimental choice. The Lightning will pull it out in seven games.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.