Lightning 2, Flames 1
If this was the last NHL game for a while, the troubled league went out with a bang.
Tampa Bay grabbed a lead on two goals from unlikely hero Ruslan Fedotenko, then relied on the spectacular play of goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to fend off a final flurry by the Calgary Flames and claim the first Stanley Cup in the 12-year history of the franchise, 2-1, in Game 7 of the finals on Monday night before a manic crowd of 22,717.
Lightning center Brad Richards, who put together one of the all-time clutch performances in this postseason (a record seven game-winning goals) was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is given to the playoff MVP. Tampa Bay went 9-0 in the playoffs when Richards scored. He finished with 12 goals and assisted on Fedotenko's first tally.
"I know it's a cliche," Richards said, "but we wanted to win the Cup and that was the main goal. [Winning the Conn Smythe] is a bonus. Obviously, it's a great honor. I will never forget that."
As emotional as the Tampa Bay players were Monday night, they'll wake up to the chilling reality of the game's uncertain future on Tuesday. The league's collective bargaining agreement is due to expire on Sept. 15 -- the sides remain far apart on the key issue of controlling players' salaries -- and a lengthy work stoppage is expected to wipe out some, if not all, of next season.
For one night, however, the Lightning players could exalt. And perhaps no one had more reason to than 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk, who played a record 1,597 regular season games and 161 playoff games without winning a title.
"This is awesome," Andreychuk said. "This is more than I ever expected. You can dream about it, but you can't ever go through it."
It was also an emotional moment for players like Jassen Cullimore, Pavel Kubina and Vincent Lecavalier, guys who endured the tough times. The Lightning had been the league's laughingstock until three years ago.
"I still can't figure out how we did it this fast," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said. "To get to where we're at today, that wasn't in the plan."
After Khabibulin made his 16th and final save in the closing seconds, he launched his stick into the air before he was mobbed by his teammates. Moments later, Andreychuk accepted the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman. Andreychuk grabbed hold of the Cup, leaped in the air a few times, then skated it around the rink before handing it to his teammates.
"If you go back three years ago, I don't know too many people, not anybody [who] thought that we could win the Stanley Cup," said Khabibulin, who posted a 16-7 record in the playoffs, a 1.71 goals against average and tied Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff for third place all-time with five shutouts in a postseason. "But you know, we were taking it step by step, we were playing better."
The Flames, meantime, failed in their attempt to win their first Cup in 15 years. They came into this postseason an unheralded No. 6 seed, upset Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose in the playoffs, and morphed into "Canada's team" in their bid to bring home a title to hockey's birthplace. The last Canadian team to win the Cup was Montreal in 1993.
Calgary fans probably won't be satisfied with the Flames' improbable run. They'll still be talking about the goal that wasn't in Game 6, the one that appeared on television replays to have caromed over the goal line off of Martin Gelinas's skate late in the third period. It would have given the Flames a one-goal lead. Instead, the Lightning won on Martin St. Louis's double-overtime goal, which forced Monday's decisive game.
"In the end we ran out of gas," Calgary Coach Darryl Sutter said. "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."
Fedotenko's second goal late in the second period staked the Lightning to a 2-0 lead. But it wasn't a comfortable margin, at least not by the middle of third period, when Calgary's Craig Conroy made it a 2-1 game with a power-play goal.
Conroy's score inspired the Flames, who ratcheted up the pressure considerably on Khabibulin from that moment on. The Tampa Bay goaltender thwarted a number of dangerous scoring chances, the best of which came off the stick of Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold. But Khabibulin was there.
Lecavalier could have iced the game for Tampa with three minutes remaining, when he skated in alone on a breakaway. But Kiprusoff (13 saves) was there with an outstanding pad save. Flames defenseman Andrew Ference was assessed a penalty for charging moments later, after crushing St. Louis along the boards. The penalty all but snuffed out the Flames' hopes.
Fedotenko was the least likely of heroes, considering his physical condition. He had struggled since missing Game 4 with a suspected concussion suffered in the previous game after being shoved face-first into the boards by Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr.
Then Fedotenko was cut over his left eye by a high stick early in the first period. But he refused to leave the bench to get his face mended, not wanting to leave the game. He returned to the ice six minutes later to score his first goal. He received six stitches between periods.
Fedotenko's two scores gave him 12 for the postseason, five short of the number he accumulated in 77 regular season games.
Once the nerves on both benches settled, it didn't take long for the Lightning to strike. Fedotenko gave the Lightning a 1-0 victory with a power-play goal at 13 minutes 31 seconds of the first period. Fedotenko slipped Regehr in front of the net, then swatted in a rebound off the pads of Kiprusoff, who was still sprawled on the ice after stopping Richards's shot from the point through traffic.
It was Tampa Bay's seventh power-play score of the finals.
Fedotenko's second score was a thing of beauty. Lecavalier, one of the game's most creative stick-handlers, danced past a trio of Calgary players -- Steve Montador, Marcus Nilson and Toni Lydman -- then back-handed a pass out to Fedotenko between the circles. Fedotenko ripped a perfectly placed slap shot into the upper corner, over Kiprusoff's glove.
"We're winners," St. Louis said. "Nothing can describe how it feels to be the last team standing."