May 25, 2004
From the files of the strange but true: If not for the looming lockout, the NHL may not have been able to script a better Stanley Cup Final.
Okay, so the marquee teams are all out, the two remaining have virtually no stars and they are both in markets that don't generally appeal to the mass public.
Forget all that, because this is going to be a great ride for any hockey fan.
First let's look at last year's Anaheim/New Jersey series. Exciting? Well, sort of. Especially for fans of neutral zone traps and one-goal games.
Speed, scoring, end-to-end rushes, fantastic transition play and virtually no dump-and-chase? That's another series altogether, and it's exactly what we have in Calgary vs. Tampa Bay.
And just like any good story, a great series needs subplots.
At the top of the subplot list is Lightning captain Dave Andreychuck and his long quest for a chance at the Cup. The 40-year old is in his 22nd year, and has played more regular season games (1,597) than any other active player without appearing in the Cup finals. Making things that much more frustrating for Andreychuck, he was within one game of the finals twice, only to lose both times. Toronto (1993) and Colorado (2000) both lost in Game 7 of the conference finals.
Another interesting side story is Martin St. Louis going up against the team that let him go before he really had a chance to find himself as a player. The diminutive sniper played for the Flames from 1998-2000 before they cut him loose. (To be fair to Calgary, though, St. Louis managed just four goals and 16 assists, and was a -7 over his 69 games with the Flames.)
What about the fact that these two teams have been so bad for so long? While some may point to that as a reason to skip this series, it may be one of the more interesting stories in this whole saga.
The Lightning used to be so awful that, as one Associated Press writer said, "hockey fans once were as rare in Tampa-St. Petersburg as snowflakes." Compare that, then, with the fact that so many calls flooded the Tampa Bay office during Game 7 of the conference final that the phone bank went out.
Calgary, meanwhile, had all but disappeared after winning the Cup back in 1989. The Flames missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons until this year, and the die-hards had to scramble just to keep the team from moving. Believe it or not, attendance had dropped so low - this is in Canada, remember - boosters held everything from bake sales and raffles to bingo games in order to keep the Flames in town. Now CCM has actually hired extra people just to make anything Flames, and store owners can't keep the stuff on the shelf. Tickets for Game 6 against the Sharks sold out in 90 seconds.
While it's safe to say every set in Canada will be tuned in, it's still uncertain if ESPN and ABC will see a good audience in the U.S. Odds are they will, if for no other reason than the winner of this series may end up holding the World Champion title for a little longer than normal. That will all be decided in future negotiations between the league and the players, but it doesn't look good.
Another knock on these two teams is their lack of name recognition. That too is changing.
While the two unlikely conference champs don't boast the star power that the Avs, Wings, Flyers or Devils do, they do each have a leader who commands unparalleled respect from teammates and opponents alike.
Calgary will be led, as it has all season, by the gritty Jarome Iginla. The Flames' captain has already been compared by some to Mark Messier. Not a comparison that can be thrown around too often. Martin Gelinas - known in Canada now as "The Closer" after scoring the decisive goal in all three series - is also quickly becoming a household name.
On the other side of the ice is the veteran journeyman, Andreychuck. Behind his leadership, Tampa Bay will follow the (forgive the pun) lightning-fast St. Louis - an obvious choice for league MVP.
Both teams also boast goalies that have soared above the expectations of many, and are a key reason they have made it to the finals.
Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin was lived up to his moniker of the Bulin Wall, bringing into the finals a 1.90 goals-against average. Even better is the Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff, who has a 1.65 GAA.
Kipper is one of the biggest reasons the Flames have the NHL's third-ranked defense, and he will need to stand tall again in this series, as the Lightning are the league's third-ranked offense.
The most visible chink in either teams' armor may be Calgary's special teams. Compared to Tampa Bay's impressive 21.2 percent conversion rate through the playoffs, the Flames have scored on only 2 of their last 32 power play chances - a 6.25% conversion rate that isn't going to win many games against the Lightning.
These teams have both earned their ticket, and they both belong in the finals. And, whether the Cup returns to its native land or it makes the incredible journey down to the Sunbelt of Florida, this series promises to be one of the best we've seen in years. It's a good thing, too, because it may have to tide us over for a while.
Let's just hope next year we have a series to talk about - good or otherwise.
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