Tampa Bay vs. Calgary Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 1-0-0 Tampa Bay
If the Tampa Bay Lightning has its way, this Stanley Cup final series for all the marbles will be a hard charging pursuit series where they won't mind trading chances while letting superior talent outscore their Calgary opponents.
If the Calgary Flames have their way, this will be a hard charging pursuit series where they will limit Tampa to 23 or fewer shots, splatter Lightning defencemen into the glass and then capitalize on their resulting chances.
Much has been made of the fact these two teams are similar in style, relentless in chasing the puck down at all corners of the ice.
While that may be true on some levels, the ultimate end goals of their game plans, aside from winning, have differences, much of it centring around Calgary's desire to make this series as physical as possible.
Calgary can't get into a run and gun matchup with Tampa and expect to win . . . . . or with pretty much any team and expect success.
Did you wonder why Ron Wilson, coach of the Sharks, aside from his massive ego, was chortling after losing a 4-3 overtime decision to Calgary in Game one of that series? If that game was going to be the picture of the series, where the Sharks generated large numbers of chances from 52 shots, Wilson knew the Sharks were going to win seven times out of ten. That percentage might even be larger with Tampa.
Both the Lightning and Flames live for the creation of mistakes. Both are superior counterattack teams.
But Calgary, when on their game, will make very few errors, will limit shots to the perimeter and a rugged defence corps will typically give Miikka Kiprusoff a good look at any drives coming his way.
That has been largely the story of the playoffs for Calgary.
Lastly, Kiprusoff himself is a step up on Khabibulin, the latter showing more of his true colours in the Philadelphia series when pressed by one of the better teams in the league.
Pursuit hockey, but this is really offence versus defence.
In the end, it will be the superior team defence and goaltending of Calgary, which will win a Stanley Cup championship.
Tampa has the better pure collection of individuals for blowing apart a game while Calgary might have the better depth to fit their overall team concept. Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin, Cory Stillman and lately, Ruslan Fedotenko are an imposing group of darting, skilled forwards but not particularly frightening physically. The best among the rest would be Dave Andreychuk who, in his prime, was considered slow in an era that was played at a lesser tempo than today. Calgary, on the other hand, is mostly pure speed and physicality throughout four lines, with only a few exceptions, and that in turn is going to give Tampa fits, particularly a defence, which hasn't yet faced what, Calgary is going to deliver. Can these Tampa forwards backcheck at the speed they'll have to if they hope to save their defencemen? Guys like Lecavalier and Fedotenko are minus or even players five on five in these playoffs, suggesting some may have problems. On the flip side, Calgary will continue to miss the fourth line speed of Matthew Lombardi while this appears to be another series where slow movers like Chris Simon will continue to be marginalized. Mike Commodore in particular is probably going to be a targeted player for the Lightning just as he was for San Jose. EDGE: TAMPA BAY
This should obviously be considered a strength of the third ranked defensive team in the NHL this year but the truth is Steve Montador and Mike Commodore are providing inexplicably decent post-seasons for a pair who might otherwise be on popcorn row. The Flames will need those head scratching performances to continue, giving coach Darryl Sutter the requisite depth he's going to need. Calgary will particularly miss the puck moving ability of Toni Lydman in this series, although there is a possibility of a return before its conclusion. Still, for the physical wars of playoff hockey this is an underrated group and, in that regard at least, superior to Tampa's on the defensive side of the puck. It appears that Pavel Kubina may get the chore of shadowing Jarome Iginla, a task that Mattias Ohlund, Darian Hatcher and Scott Hannan largely failed at in prior series. And they're all better than Kubina. The return of Jason Cullimore to the Tampa lineup provides a physical presence the Lightning needed while Dan Boyle is as fine a puck moving defenceman as there is. Until Calgary gets Lydman back, we'll call it a draw. EDGE: EVEN
In spite of the hoopla coming out of Tampa, this is really no contest as Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff is putting up pretty much the same record setting numbers in the post-season as he had through the regular campaign, defeating three division winners in the process. While Khabibulin was generating some gaudy statistics of his own against the lower tier Islanders and Canadiens, he fairly plummeted when the going got rough against the Flyers, barely scratching a save percentage above .900 in the series and looking perilously close to the guy who managed a below average .910 through the regular season. LARGE EDGE: CALGARY
After being mopped up with the floor in the first game of the playoffs against Vancouver, Calgary's penalty kill has been operating at an 88% success rate ever since, including an impressive series long shutdown of the amply skilled Detroit Red Wings. Similarly, Tampa's PK has been equally impressive, now with a 90% success rate through three series. Where the Lightning have a large apparent advantage is their power play depth. Although that wasn't particularly evident against either Montreal or the Islanders, Tampa inexplicably destroying Philadelphia with the extra man through seven games. The Flames power play has been mediocre at best, a swell playoff run made longer because they couldn't put teams away at opportune moments when the chances were there. One of the primary keys for Calgary in this series will be to limit Tampa's extra man opportunities to five or fewer a game. If Calgary is in the box too much, the percentages will only favour the Lightning. LARGE EDGE: TAMPA BAY
There's a little bit of Sutter in John Tortorella, the Tampa
coach alternately wearing out a poplar switch on the britches of a few of his charges before giving them a hug at just the right moment. He's a bright lad who has stayed with his convictions and pushed the right buttons to lift a floundering franchise to the edge of greatness. Sutter, on the other hand, must be astounded to be here but is no less phlegmatic than he's ever been, a calm, collected and forceful personality on the Flames bench. The impressive thing about Calgary in these playoffs is they've been outplayed soundly at times but always came back with the adjustments necessary to ultimately carry the day. That's coaching as much as it is mental toughness. SLIGHT EDGE: CALGARY
Tampa was the number two team in the NHL through the regular season and
aside from a brief flounder through the middle portion of the campaign and the annual beat-up of Lecavalier by Tortorella, never seemed to face much in the way of adversity, even going largely injury free the entire way. Their trip to the Stanley Cup final has been similarly non-eventful aside from the test of a Game 7 versus Philadelphia. Calgary's mettle, on the other hand, was tested October through to the present, with massive injuries at specific positions putting a strain on the lineup and the Flames never confirming their post-season berth until the final week of the season. Calgary has also weathered the heart-breaking sight of Vancouver scoring with six seconds left to force Game 7 overtime as well as persistent injuries to key components like Stephane Yelle, Craig Conroy and others through the post-season. These are players that know the measure of one another in tough times and that is one of the ultimate intangibles. That being said, the team with low expectations, Calgary, can suddenly see the Stanley Cup right before their eyes. How will they react? A lot will depend on those who have been there before, Rhett Warrener, Martin Gelinas and Stephane Yelle. We also didn't like a six game layoff for Calgary. EDGE: CALGARY
If the old axiom that defence wins championships holds true, the Calgary Flames will be Stanley Cup champions within a fortnight.
Having taken the most difficult route possible to this Finals series, the Flames ironically will now meet the kind of team they're virtually designed to defeat, the Lightning a team that can't be taken lightly yet an opponent that appears to be the "easiest" of the four elite teams Calgary will have needed to eliminate in this playoff.