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PLAYOFF SERIES: Stanley Cup finals; Game 1.
TIME: Tuesday, 8 p.m. EDT.
In what could be the last Stanley Cup finals for a while, the two surprising opponents in the series could provide a stark reminder of the type of exciting hockey and storylines the NHL would be missing.
With a possible protracted labor battle looming on the offseason horizon, the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning continue what have been a pair of stunning postseason runs when they meet in Game 1 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The NHL's labor contract expires after this season, and the players' union and owners are set for a long fight over a myriad of major issues. Salaries, major rules changes to increase scoring and the length of the regular season are just a few of the key sticking points in a league that appears on the verge of sweeping change - and a possible long-term shutdown until those questions are resolved.
The Flames and Lightning, meanwhile, played on through the playoffs, oblivious to those problems. If the teams perform in this series as they have throughout the postseason, fans could have a classic matchup to remember as one of the clubs gets set to claim, and possibly hold onto, the Stanley Cup for a while.
The Lightning and Flames have used exciting, fast-paced styles to record improbable victories throughout the postseason. Tampa Bay was the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but still had to make believers out of many observers who didn't see it as a Cup contender.
Twelve victories later, no one is doubting the Lightning anymore. A five-game win over the New York Islanders, a sweep of Montreal and a seven-game victory over powerful Philadelphia earned Tampa Bay respect along with its first finals berth.
"I am not going to lie to you, there's no chance we thought this would happen so quick," Lightning coach John Tortorella said.
Led offensively by skilled forwards Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko, and backstopped by red-hot Nikolai Khabibulin in net, Tampa Bay completed its transition from league laughingstock to one of the NHL's top clubs with a 106-point season that proved to be no fluke when the playoffs rolled around.
Fourth-year coach Tortorella, despite a reputation as a fiery, emotional leader, has nonetheless forged a team that has as its biggest attribute a poised, calm approach.
The young Lightning have rarely looked rattled throughout the pressurized NHL postseason atmosphere, not even in Saturday's decisive game against the older and more experienced Flyers.
Modin and Fedotenko scored, and Khabibulin stopped 22 shots as the Lightning erased the memory of a Game 6 overtime loss, holding on for a 2-1 victory and sending the crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum into a frenzy.
"I feel excitement for what's happened to our club, the improvements we've made in the last three years, and everybody in that locker room should be pretty proud of the situation we're in," said 40-year-old Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, who had played more regular-season games (1,597) than any active player without appearing in the Cup finals.
While Tampa Bay received little pre-playoff notoriety despite its top seeding, no one could have expected the Flames to get this far. Before this amazing playoff run, the Flames had gone seven years without even making the postseason - marking the futility that had plagued the organization since winning its only Stanley Cup 15 years ago.
A rising superstar in Jarome Iginla, a speedy and hard-working roster and the emergence of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has changed all that. The sixth-seeded Flames pulled off upsets of Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose to return to the Cup finals for the first time since the 1989 club brought an NHL championship to the small, northwestern Canadian city.
"Now, you can feel the buzz in Calgary no matter where you go," said Flames forward Martin Gelinas, who has scored the decisive goal in three consecutive series to help put a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
While the home cities of the finalists couldn't be much further apart in distance or climate, the teams' similar styles promise to give the league everything it is looking for in future Stanley Cup finals: Speed and hard hitting, with skilled players pressuring the puck on both sides.
No team has been able to adequately contain the aggressive young forwards of the Flames or Lightning in these playoffs, and the group that is more productive in this series is likely to give its team a victory.
The Flames' top forwards are even less well-known than the Lightning's, but there's little doubt Tampa Bay has taken notice of Calgary's No. 1 line of Iginla, Craig Conroy and Gelinas, which has provided most of the team's scoring in the postseason.
At the same time, the Lightning will try to not take too much notice of the Flames' grating, irritating approach. The in-your-face style of players like Ville Nieminen, Chris Simon and Iginla was a factor in getting each of Calgary's previous three opponents off their games.
The Flames' chippy play will probably provide the ultimate test for the composure that has been so crucial for Tampa Bay.
"They are relentless," Richards said. "They never quit. Their feet are always moving, and they are playing with so much emotion - and (with) a great goalie."
That goalie, Kiprusoff, has thoroughly outplayed his counterparts during this postseason, and he'll try to do the same to Khabibulin.
Game 2 will be Thursday night.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Flames - 6th seed; beat Vancouver Canucks 4-3, West quarterfinals; beat Detroit Red Wings 4-2, West semifinals; beat San Jose Sharks 4-2, West finals. Lightning - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, East quarterfinals; beat Montreal Canadiens 4-0, East semifinals; beat Philadelphia Flyers 4-3, East finals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Flames - Iginla, 10 goals and 17 points; Conroy, 10 assists, Simon, 53 PIM. Lightning - Lecavalier and Fedotenko, 9 goals; St. Louis, 13 assists and 18 points; Andre Roy, 40 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Flames - Power play: 10.7 percent (9 for 84). Penalty killing: 83.9 percent (73 for 87). Lightning - Power play: 21.2 percent (14 for 66). Penalty killing: 90.4 percent (47 for 52).
GOALTENDERS: Flames - Kiprusoff (12-7, 4 SO, 1.90 GAA); Roman Turek (0-0, 0.00). Lightning - Khabibulin (12-4, 4, 1.65); John Grahame (0-0, 3.53).
SEASON SERIES: Lightning, 1-0. St. Louis, who split his first two NHL seasons between the Flames and the minors before signing with the Lightning in July 2000, had three goals and an assist to lead Tampa Bay to a 6-2 victory Jan. 24 at the Pengrowth Saddledome. Lecavalier added three assists for the Lightning.