|NHL.com: Impact Magazine|
|The face of Martin St. Louis says it all. If you want to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup you have to be willing to pay the price.|
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.
|Players are willing to give up their body for two months for a chance at winning an NHL championship.|
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."
|Ruslan Fedotenko was one of the many Lightning players who played through pain in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.|
In the end, when scouting reports were no longer important, many of those injuries were finally disclosed. Rugged defenseman Jassen Cullimore played despite breaking his wrist. Cory Stillman tore up his MCL early in the playoffs, yet soldiered on. Dan Boyle, whose house caught fire early in the series, played with a broken thumb.
Pavel Kubina missed just one game despite suffering a suspected concussion. Vinny Lecavalier didn't miss any games despite being face-planted into the glass and knocked woozy by a vicious hit in Game 4. Ruslan Fedotenko, meanwhile, missed just one game after his cheek met the boards in a heavy smashup in Game 3 that resulted in a nasty gash on his right cheek.
That's right, the same Fedotenko that scored both Tampa goals in Game 7 -- both coming after Fedotenko suffered a stitch-worthy cut to his eyebrow early in the game.
Again, such behavior is par for the course come April, May and June for NHL players. They grow up on the stories of past players playing through pain to chase the Stanley Cup dream. Then, they arrive at the NHL level and they see the sacrifices first-hand. It changes them in ways they could not previously comprehend. Suddenly, they too are willing to endure personal pain for the greater good.
Tampa Bay veteran Tim Taylor learned those lessons while a young player with Detroit. While with the Red Wings in the early 90s, he watched star center Sergei Fedorov play through a separated shoulder during one Stanley Cup run.
He remembers hearing stories about legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov bringing Fedorov to the rink the night before a game and making him skate to show Fedorov that he could still play. Fedorov played.
Lukowich, meanwhile, learned his lessons well while with Dallas. In 1999, he was a healthy scratch, but he was still involved enough to know the secrets of that locker room.
Brett Hull, who scored the Cup-winning goal against Buffalo, was playing with a MCL injury, he says. Center Mike Modano had a broken wrist. Benoit Hogue had a "knee thing."
|The thrill of victory seems to make all the bumps and bruises worthwhile for the players.|
"It was pretty much every guy on that team -- knee, ankle, chest, knee, finger, toes, whatever, they had it," said Lukowich.
The next year, the Stars lost to New Jersey in a demanding six-game test of wills. Again, Lukowich had a bird's-eye view of the action. He is still haunted by the effort of teammate Darryl Sydor in Game 6. Sydor, who played for the Lightning this time around, sprained his ankle while standing in front of the Dallas net. Falling to the ice, Sydor still tried to crawl into position to potentially block shots before a whistle finally stopped play.
"Players will do anything to win the Stanley Cup," said Lukowich, simply. "Anything!"
Experiencing that mindset first-hand left Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella in awe.
"As I said the other day, and I have never realized it, it's easy to talk about what players have to do to win the Stanley Cup," said Tortorella, the first American-born coach to win the Stanley Cup since 1991. "It's easy to look at how many days they have to play and from on the outside say 'Geez, that's tough.' But I have been very fortunate to be with this team and do it for my first time in the National Hockey League, to go on this long journey with them and it's just an -- it's been an incredible experience in how tough it is and what these guys have to go through.
"Both teams are banged up. Both teams are hiding injuries. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both teams getting this far and what these players have to do. You guys don't know. You think you do, but you don't know what these players have to go through. I am not just talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning; I am talking about the Calgary Flames. You don't know. To be with them and go through four rounds, I have nothing but respect for the athletes. That's why it's about the athletes."