Lightning 2, Flyers 1
The Tampa Bay Lightning players promised themselves there would be no repeat of what happened Thursday in Philadelphia. There would be no sitting on a one-goal third period lead. None of that playing-not-to-lose business.
Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Dave Andreychuk made sure of that Saturday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals at St. Pete Times Forum, where the Lightning was in control from the opening faceoff through the final buzzer of a 2-1 victory over the Flyers in front of a raucous, record crowd of 22,117.
The Lightning will open the Stanley Cup finals here Tuesday, hosting the Western Conference champion Calgary Flames in Game 1. The finals offer an unlikely meeting between teams with two of the lowest payrolls in the league.
This postseason has seen the Lightning achieve a succession of milestones, each bigger than the previous. Now, the 12-year-old franchise, which as recently as just four years ago was among the league's bottom-feeders, is headed to its first Cup finals.
"We felt like we had been making strides the past few years," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said. "I'm not going to lie to you, there is no chance any of us thought this was going to happen this quick. We didn't go through the back door."
Wingers Ruslan Fedotenko and Fredrik Modin scored for the Lightning, which took a 2-1 lead into the third period. And Nikolai Khabibulin sparkled once again in goal, making seven of his 22 saves in the final period, including one from point-blank range in the waning seconds, to secure the win. He also had a huge save late in the second period, when he thwarted Flyers captain Keith Primeau on a breakaway to protect the 2-1 margin.
"We learned the lesson very quickly that you go out there in the third period and sit back on your heels," said Richards, who assisted on both goals. "You have to go out there and try to win the game. . . . The emotion this crowd gave us, everyone was on their game. You just had the feeling we were going to go out there and dominate. Home-ice advantage really kicked in."
The Tampa area has embraced the club during its championship chase, and now it can officially go Cup crazy. The hockey-mad city of Philadelphia, meantime, must go without the shiny three-foot high trophy for the 29th straight year, despite another season of high expectations and a roster full of high-priced veterans.
"I've dreamed about this day," said Andreychuk, the Lightning captain who will be making his first trip to the finals in 22 NHL seasons. "The improvements we've made the past three years, everyone in that locker room should be pretty proud."
Lecavalier said: "Well, our first four or five years we were in the bottom of the league and we really started believing it. We had a great year last year [when they rallied to beat the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs after being down 2-0] and it kind of snowballed into this year . . . and then we started thinking we could win."
If the first six games of the series were about the Tampa Bay's speed vs. Philadelphia's brawn, the Lightning took that away that advantage in Game 7's opening shift, when Andre Roy pummeled the Flyers' Jeremy Roenick along the boards. Roy's hit set the stage for an evening in which the Lightning dominated physically. Even Lecavalier slammed Flyers whenever possible.
Despite being outshot 6 to 1 at one point during the opening period, Tampa Bay established control with a power-play goal by Fedotenko, who fought off Philadelphia defenseman Kim Johnsson in front of the Flyers' goal long enough to redirect a long wrist shot from Richards and put the Lightning ahead 1-0 at 16:46.
While the Lightning capitalized on the man advantage, the Flyers continued to struggle, finishing just 1 for 26 on the power play for the series, including 0 for 2 in the first 20 minutes.
"Those two kills really got us going," Richards said.
Modin put the Lightning ahead 2-0 at 4 minutes 57 seconds of the second period on a goal that was emblematic of Tampa's up-tempo, puck pressure style of attack. Because of it, the Flyers were unable to clear the puck from their own end, and when Jassen Cullimore, playing in his first game since the first round because of a wrist injury, dug the puck free behind the net and passed it out front, Modin was there waiting to tap into the net before Philadelphia goalie Robert Esche (30 saves) had a chance to slid across.
The Flyers quickly got back into the game. Johnsson ripped a shot from the point that navigated its way through a morass of legs and skates in front of the Tampa Bay goal and eventually into the net, halving their deficit to 2-1 at 10:16 of the second. It would be their last goal of the season.