Monday, June 07, 2004

No Canada!

In the end, the Flames needed just a little more time, and time was not their friend in this game 7. The clock ran out and so did the dreams of Flames fans and Canadians from coast to coast, as Calgary came up one goal short of sending this series into Overtime for the third game in a row. Sadly for Calgary and Canada, Stanley won’t be coming home this year; Stanley is going to work on the tan on a beach in Florida.

The Tampa Bay Lightning scored twice on goals from Ruslan Fedetenko and then held on for dear life, as they held off a spirited Flame attack in the last ten minutes of the third period. Prevailing by a score of 2-1, the Lightning are the Stanley Cup Champions for 2003-04, winning the best of seven series four games to three.

For Calgary it’s a bitter pill to swallow, having come this far only to watch the clock run out. With a chance to put the Bolts away on Saturday slipping by them, they had their backs to the wall for game seven in Tampa. Tampa controlled the boards and kept the middle clear for most of the game, Calgary never really seemed able to put much pressure on Nickolai Khabibulin in the first 45 minutes of the game. Every time the Flames would enter the Lightning zone the Bolts went into a defensive scheme that kept the puck on the periphery, never to the slot and rarely to the point, Tampa controlled the play well early on, sending the puck out of danger with a great frequency. Scoring chances were few and far between, as the flow of the game never really got a chance to take off. The shots on goal were indicative of the sluggish nature of this game, in the first period the Flames could manage only 3 shots on net, the Bolts 6. The second period each managed only 4 shots. Thus the first two periods were not very pretty hockey, if tight checking and safe hockey is your thing, this would be your highlight film game, but if you were yearning for end to end rushing and spectacular plays this game was not for you.

When the Flames finally got untracked though, one just sensed that it would only be a matter of time before they pulled even and possibly ahead of the Bolts. Finally breaking free of the lock down checking system put in place by Tampa, Calgary began to get some chances again in the final ten minutes. The Flames came at the Bolts in wave after wave, getting 10 shots on net by the time the period and game came to an end. Finally revving up their offence, the Flames made wild stabs at the elusive rebounds offered up. But Khabibulin was up to the challenge, shutting the door time and time again. He effectively rebuilt the Bulin wall and in the end only surrendered a power play goal to Craig Conroy on a shot he probably never saw. That was it though, one goal on 17 shots, not enough chances, no finish and eventually as time wound down, no win for Calgary.

The Lightning, who battled back gamely in this series, saluted their fans, took their photos, collected their trophies and headed off the ice, Stanley Cup Champions. Brad Richards who had a stellar playoff series was named the Conn Smythe winner as the MVP for the playoffs, a fitting tribute to the player who calls PEI home; he was dominant in many of the games this playoff season and in particular had the number of Miikka Kiprusoff. Vincent Lecavalier had a solid game seven; finally regaining his offensive form as he single handedly controlled three Flames to set up Ruslan Fedetenko’s second and ultimately winning goal.

The Lightning did slow down the pace of the game in the first two and half periods, shadowing Jarome Iginla and Martin Gelinas, holding them off the scoring sheet and far enough away from Khabibulin to not provide too much trouble. Captain Dave Andreychuck, the 40 year newbie in a Stanley Cup was dominant in his checking, frustrating Iginla for most of the night. For Andreychuk it was mission accomplished as he collected his first Stanley Cup ever, finally given a chance to hoist the fabled trophy high above, perhaps for his only time.

Ice conditions in the warm St. Petersburgh Times Forum provided some unusual bounces and unexpected tumbles, but as they say both teams played on the same sheet of ice. In the end, the Bolts hung on and skated away with the championship. Perhaps now they’ll gain a bit of respect in the hockey world, as they traveled through the playoff rounds winning series after series many still expected them to exit before the final dance. They were wrong, the Lightning were in the playoffs for the long run, and stretching things as long as they could, they proved to be worthy champions. With the hard earned victory of game six to bring things home to the final horn of game seven and the celebration they proved to their critics that they were a true champion. Disappointed Flame fans and hockey fans across Canada can tip their caps to the new Stanley Cup Champs, they earned their victory shift by shift, goal by goal and save by save. They may have begun their playoff run as unknowns, but it’s safe to say that hockey fans across North America are aware of them now.

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