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  • Lightning answer Stanley's call

    By Phil Coffey |
    June 7, 2004

    TAMPA -- The Stanley Cup is going to get quite a suntan this summer courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    The Lightning completed a stunningly successful season Monday night, winning the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, 2-1, over the equally game and inspired Calgary Flames.

    Tampa's Brad Richards, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 23 games, was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the 2004 playoffs.

    The Lightning, the top seed in the Eastern Conference this spring, rallied back against the sixth-seeded Flames, who had taken a 3-2 series lead with a victory in Game 5. But Tampa took Game 6 in Calgary to force the seventh game where anything could happen.

    Monday night, Ruslan Fedotenko happened early and Nikoilai Khabibulin happened late for the victors.

    Fedotenko scored a power-play goal in the first period and an even-strength goal in the second to give the Bolts a two-goal bulge.

    Khabibulin lived up to his nickname of "The 'Bulin Wall" in the third period, stepping to the fore as the Flames put on relentless, sustained pressure. Calgary's lone goal by Craig Conroy at 9:21 of the third was a power-play tally that got past a screened Khabibulin.

    "I didn't really try to put any pressure on myself going into the playoffs," said Khabibulin, who had been a lightning rod for criticism in some quarters. "I just tried to, you know, tried to do the best I can every game and see where it takes us."

    Well, you can't go much further than the seventh game of the Finals and leave the ice with the Stanley Cup.

    "If you go back three years ago, I don't know too many, if anybody, thought that we could win the Stanley Cup," Khabibulin said. "But you know, we were taking step by step. We were playing better. I think the most important thing is the core of the players stayed the same. Guys like Brad Richards and Vinny (Lecavalier) and Martin (St. Louis), a lot of the guys matured and obviously became very good players. I think that helped."

    Khabibulin's goaltending was critical in the third period. He faced only seven shots in the first two periods, but the Flames gave it everything they had in the third, putting 10 shots and unrelenting pressure on the Lightning.

    Conroy's goal beat Khabibulin high to the glove side with Martin Gelinas setting the screen in front while battling with Dave Andreychuk. The goal sent a surge of energy through the Flames who put on incredible pressure after the goal, with defenseman Jordan Leopold nearly tying the game with 4:46 left when he pinched in and very nearly got the puck over Khabibulin's outstretched arm and a diving Pavel Kubina. Steve Montador nearly scored from the circle to Khabibulin's left seconds later, but the goalie was able to knock the puck away amidst the Flames' suffocating pressure and preserve the victory.

    Despite the loss, the Flames played with heart and passion in what became a bitter disappointment to a wonderful season in which Calgary returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a seven-season drought and as the sixth seed in the Western Conference eliminated three division winners ? Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose. But the Southeast Division champion Lightning were one division champ too many.

    "In the end, we ran out of gas," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. "Winning Game 5 actually hurt us more than it helped us because the injuries (to defenseman Robyn Regehr and forward Shean Donovan) were 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.

    While showing plenty of heart in the process.

    "That's what it was at the end," Sutter said. "That's what they were playing on and that's all they had left."

    The Tampa victory was especially sweet for Andreychuk, who has toiled for 22 NHL seasons and was in appearing in his 1,759th career game ? 162 playoff games ? without winning the Stanley Cup. Until Monday night, when he realized his dream of winning the Cup when he took hold of the cherished trophy from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at center ice of the frenzied St. Pete Times Forum.

    "You dream about this day for a long time, obviously," Andreychuk said. "(It's) taken me a while to get to this point and I don't believe you can put into words the things that are going through your mind."

    The triumph completed a rags-to-riches story for the Lightning, who have evolved from a long-struggling expansion team to champs under GM Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella.

    After being eliminated in the second round last season, the deepest the franchise had ever gone in the playoffs, the two men got together and formed a plan for this season that culminated in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals.

    "I don't think we really ever expected that," Tortorella admitted. "Again, what we talked about, we just wanted to make our players understand we had a pretty good year. I don't think we answered well in the second round of the playoffs against (New) Jersey. And we wanted our team just to continue to get better.

    "I think you have got to be real careful as an organization trying to grow is not to have it one and out. We just wanted to continue to grow. That's when we gave them that book, we are a good team, but we want to be a great team. It more or less sent a message that way.

    "You don't know what is going to happen, so I still can't figure it out, how quickly it happened for us. It's the group of men in the room. We just try to guide them."

    Well, judging by the results, the Lightning sure were pointed in the right direction.

    The first 40 minutes Monday night were key in the Lightning achieving their dream. The Lightning had the edge in play, shots, and most importantly goals in the first period, taking a 1-0 lead thanks to the gutsy play of Fedotenko.

    Sporting a nasty cut over his right eye, Fedotenko put the Bolts on the board at 13:31, scoring his 11th goal of the playoffs with Tampa Bay on the power play.

    Give a lot of credit for the goal to winger Fredrik Modin, who worked the right side of the ice hard to get the puck and dish it back to Richards at the right point.

    Richards put a wrist shot on goal through a screen that Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff kicked out. But Regehr was unable to contain the puck and/or Fedotenko, who fired the rebound into the net for the first goal of the game.

    Fedotenko make it 2-0 at 14:38 of the second period off a tremendous effort by Vincent Lecavalier, who put his considerable skills to work at the right time.

    Lecavalier grabbed the puck in the left wing corner and then ragged the puck while dipsey-doodling in a very small space. He avoided Steve Montador and then a collision with two more players before dishing to Fedotenko in the high slot just before being dropped to the ice by two Flames.

    Lecavalier's pass was breathtaking, but Fedotenko kept it from becoming a forgotten play when he ripped the puck high to Kiprusoff's glove side for his second of the game and 12th of the playoffs. But more importantly for the packed house at the St. Pete Times Forum and the thousands watching outside, the goal gave Tampa a 2-0 lead.

    Leading after two periods was a huge omen of success for the Lightning, who entered the game 14-1 when leading after 40 minutes. In contrast, trailing after two has been a precursor of disaster for the Flames, who were 0-7 when trailing after two going into the game.

    And thanks to the heroics Khabibulin supplied in the third period, the Lightning were able to make an unlikely dream at the start of the 2003-04 season became a reality.

    Stanley better get his sunblock.
    Curly ~ Horns

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    By JEFF McNIELL ~ Assistant Sports Editor
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    (Opening statement)
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