Survival of the fittest
As usual, it was the last men standing that hoisted the Stanley Cup.
This time around, the Tampa Bay Lightning survived the all-consuming march to hockey immortality, winning a Game 7 against the Calgary Flames to close out the latest edition of the most demanding two months that sport has to offer.
And, make no mistake, Tampa Bay's victory was as much about endurance as it was about timely goals from Ruslan Fedotenko and Brad Richards, the Lightning's suffocating defense and the brilliant goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin. When all was said and done, survival was the order of the day.
"In the end, we ran out of gas," said Darryl Sutter, the Flames' coach and one of hockey's true hard men. "Winning Game 5 actually hurt us more than it helped us because the injuries we sustained in it.
"The longer the series went, the tougher it was going to be. I think we tried to summon all we could in terms of energy. In the end, they had more legs than we did. Hey, we got beat by a great hockey team. We played as well as we could."
Just not well enough to come out on the winning end of what turned out to be a 2-1 Cup-clinching victory by the Lightning at the St. Pete Times Forum. For the Flames, the wear-and-tear of 26 tooth-and-nail postseason games proved to be too much.
Defenseman Robyn Regehr played the final two-plus games despite suffering a high ankle sprain in Game 5. He played despite Sutter's belief that he likely wouldn't. He played despite trading in his skates for a walking cast after playing in Games 5, 6 and 7.
"There was no question I would play," said Regehr. "It was an easy decision."
Easy only because that is the way hockey players are programmed. They play, often even when their bodies scream for them to rest. They bury the pain in dreams of the Stanley Cup and well-crafted illusions that a summer of rest as a champion will restore their bodies.
And when they can no longer trick their bodies, the ache in their heart outweighs the pain of the injury.
Calgary's gritty Shean Donovan injured his knee in a goal-mouth scrum in Game 5. He could not play in the final two games, although he did skate in the pre-game warmup for Game 7. Those were the first two games Donovan missed all season, having played in all 82 regular-season games and his team's first 24 postseason contests.
"You battle through the schedule all season, then you come to the last game of the year and you need one win and to have to watch the game is horrible," Donovan said before Game 6, his brave face doing little to hide the disappointment and frustration bubbling just below the surface.
If only the Flames were the only team suffering injuries, their loss might have been easier to accept. Then, in the end, misfortune could be laid at the feet of those injuries and the cruel vagaries of fate. But the Flames knew their adversaries were playing hurt as well.
That, after all, is the covenant of Stanley Cup hockey.
And, the Lightning followed its precepts just as stringently as the Flames.
"There're guys with injuries that people know about," said Tampa Bay defenseman Brad Lukowich, who missed the last three games of the Finals because of an undisclosed injury. "The ones in the paper are huge injuries and everyone knows about them. But there are other injuries in this room that nobody knows about. It's unbelievable."