On the heels of Game 4 shutout, Lightning look poised to hoist Cup
Posted: Tuesday June 1, 2004 2:16PM; Updated: Tuesday June 1, 2004 6:29PM
No. 1Tampa Bay vs. No. 6Calgary Stanley Cup Finals
STORY OF THE SERIES
Nikolai Khabibulin and the Lightning are 6-0 in the playoffs after a loss.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Stop us if you've heard this before: The Flames' energy and effort have been the defining characteristics of the Stanley Cup finals -- just as they were for each of the three series that Calgary won to get to this point. The Flames' lesser puckhandling, passing and shooting skills have been in stark evidence against the talented Lightning, who already have put together a few highlight-reel sequences (see: Lecavalier, Vincent). Yet Calgary's will, combined with a dash of speed, a dollop of Miikka Kiprusoff's athleticism and a dose of Lightning lethargy, has this series tied up. The slowest parts of the series have come when Calgary goes into its 1-2-2 late-game trap -- which it relied on in Games 1 and 3, much to the misfortune of fans wanting to see Tampa Bay's stable of scorers break loose.
SURPRISE OF THE SERIES
The uneven play and the general anemia of the Lightning offense. It's rare to see a team appear so flat for periods at a time in the finals. After a yawn of a Game 1, Tampa Bay did bring good energy in Game 2. Yet even in that game, the Lightning only barely broke through against Kiprusoff. Take out a three-minute stretch early in the third period of Game 2, a span in which the Lightning scored three times, and Tampa Bay has a grand total of one even-strength goal in four games. Part of the low productivity is due to Calgary's protectiveness with a lead, and part because the Lightning have been stymied by the even-keeled Kiprusoff, but overall there has been a mystifying lack of production from a team that has two dauntingly skillful lines.
THE LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF ...
Nikolai Khabibulin continues to play as he did in his Game 4 shutout. Calgary has loads of trouble finishing, and if Khabibulin keeps forcing the Flames to make perfect shots, they could be in for a serious scoring drought. Tampa Bay also needs to get consistency from its top players. Lecavalier seems to alternate big performances with invisible ones, and Martin St. Louis has not been enough of a factor in creating plays. If those two get into groove and Tampa Bay can score with some regularity, the Flames could be finished. The Lightning needs to turn in a big effort, and not retreat into its ho-hum ways, at home in Game 5.
THE FLAMES WILL WIN IF ...
They can get ahead in games, and if they can get any kind of production out of their power play. Calgary doesn't have the firepower to rally back against Khabibulin and the solid Lightning defense. The Flames also need to stay out of the penalty box. They're prone to taking dumb penalties -- e.g. the major that Ville Nieminen drew after elbowing Lecavalier to the head late in Game 4 -- and Tampa Bay's power play is way too dangerous to be given a lot of chances. Kiprusoff has to be prepared to stop a Lightning push in Game 5, and, as always, Jarome Iginla needs to shoulder a big part of the scoring responsibility
Tampa Bay has loads of room for improvement, and it has the better talent. Expect Calgary to win one more game, but then its impressive effort finally will come up short as Tampa Bay will win the Cup in seven games.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.