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A faint whiff of panic

Lightning tightly wound with Flames nearing first title in 15 years

Posted: Saturday June 5, 2004 12:01PM; Updated: Saturday June 5, 2004 12:02PM
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On Friday, John Tortorella flew with the Lightning from Tampa to Calgary. He put his players through an "optional" skate that was longer, more organized and better attended than the word optional would indicate.

Then he pulled out the Jedi mind tricks in an attempt at wriggling inside the Flames' heads on the eve of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals.


"The pressure is not on us right now," the Lightning coach insisted, perhaps forgetting for a moment that Tampa Bay trails 3-2 in the series and can't afford another spotty performance like the one it put forth in Game 5.. "It's on the Calgary team. You've got all of Canada here waiting for them to win tomorrow. The Cup is in the building.... I'm sure there's a number of things going through their minds."

Tortorella repeated his theme for the day a number of times. The pressure's on the Flames. We're in their building. The world is watching. You're getting verrry sleepy.

The Flames, on the verge of clinching the franchise's first championship in 15 years, no doubt found sleep elusive last night.

But it's the Lightning who have grown more tightly wound as this series has progressed. By and large they've been outplayed by the Flames over the last three games. Tortorella benched two regulars, Cory Stillman and Brad Lukowich, for Game 5, a move that gave off a faint whiff of panic. For what it's worth, the Lightning looked like a grim bunch during their Friday practice, which was chatter-free and conducted in a funereal fashion.

If Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, the Lightning's gifted trio of forwards, have plans to take over this series, Game 6 would be the time to start. They showed flashes of brilliance in Game 5, but those were negated by carelessness with the puck that cost Tampa Bay the game.

Jarome Iginla pounced on an errant pass by St. Louis in Tampa's offensive zone and scored at the other end of the ice. An easily avoidable turnover by Lecavalier in overtime sparked the chaos that led to Oleg Saprykin's game-winner.

In the latter half of Game 5, Tortorella played Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis together on a glitzy top line. The eggs-in-one-basket unit was effective; expect to see it early and often as the Lightning try to grab an early lead in Game 6. The team that has scored first has won every game in this series.

The Flames have stumbled and bumbled around the offensive zone all series, particularly when the incomparable Iginla hasn't been on the ice. Coach Darryl Sutter told his star to jump in whenever he felt like it in overtime on Thursday, and Iginla played half of the period. His workload, and his burgeoning legend, will continue to grow in Game 6.

His teammates must play with the discipline and tact they had in Game 5 and lacked earlier in the series. The suspended Ville Nieminen (who, in his words, is "well rested and almost arrested") will return to the lineup.

He and the Flames are no doubt smiling at the NHL's decision to scratch referees Kerry Fraser and Brad Watson, who were scheduled to work Game 6. Fraser incurred the wrath of the Flames and their fans with his calls in Game 4. The league defused a potential powder keg by assigning Bill McCreary and Stephen Walkom -- they presided over Game 5, the cleanest and most wide-open contest of the series -- to Saturday's match.

It was a wise, if unorthodox, move by the league, which doesn't need a refereeing controversy becoming the story of the day. Fans in Calgary who were planning to boo Fraser mercilessly will save their voices for what they hope will be a raucous Stanley Cup party on Saturday night.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephen Cannella covers the NHL for the magazine and contributes frequently to SI.com.