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
You see this isn't the way it's supposed to work at Calgarypuck.com.
The season ends in early April. We write a quick end of season piece, then do some fluffy NHL previews round by round and then take a nice little break before we crank it up with our draft coverage.
And yet here we go again ... another round, another set of word heavy Flame series predictions and analysis. Know what? Couldn't be happier.
The Calgary Flames take to the ice at 6:00 PM MST tonight to battle the Tampa Bay Lightening in game one of the Stanley Cup Final.
Truth be known, the season is already a resounding success, in fact it's been a resounding success since they took the Canucks to seven games, and ever since they've just been adding layer after layer of gravy, putting the skids on a period of franchise futility.
However, since they'll make them play the games they might as well win the damn thing? I mean, what the heck opportunities like this don't present themselves every day.
What better way to cap this crazy drive off than to win it all? How many people can fit on the Red Mile anyway?
No matter how you slice it, the Bolts have a huge leg up when it comes to their forward group.
The teams saw off when it comes to super star talent, and in fact I'd give the Flames and Jarome Iginla an edge over the diminutive Martin St. Louis in a hard hitting series.
But from there the depth scoring clearly goes to the Lightening with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko lighting the lamp with more consistency than a Calgary contingent of Craig Conroy, Martin Gelinas, and the second line of Shean Donovan, Marcus Nilson and Ville Nieminen.
The difference in top two line production is broadened because of the injury absence to Steve Reinprecht and Dean McAmmond, two players they've had to do without throughout the playoffs.
Tampa has received 40 of their 47 playoff goals from their top group, while the Flames have 30 of their 46 goals from their top two lines. If anything the Flames may have an edge in terms of lower roster depth as the foot soldiers have gotten it done more often.
The Lightening have averaged a heady 2.94 goals scored per game, compared to the Flames mark of 2.42. That's half a goal per game, and potential trouble for Calgary.
EDGE: TAMPA BAY
A healthy Calgary blueline would likely lap the Tampa contingent, but as Calgary fans have grown accustomed to in these playoffs, healthy they are not.
The current group of Calgary blueliners should still hold an edge over the Lightening crew both in terms of foot speed and physicality, with the key players coming in the form of Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold.
If Regehr specifically can keep tabs on the quick footed but small statured Tampa gunners this series could turn in Calgary's favour quickly. The key for the Flames will be to play the man and make Calgary ice a hostile endeavor for the Bolts without taking penalties in doing so.
The Tampa crew is now healthy again with Jason Cullimore returning from injury. The Lightening tend to dress seven defenceman along with 11 forwards, and will use all seven in a variety of roles. Darryl Sydor is the most experienced blueliner and Dan Boyle the key for the Tampa Blueline. A big question for the Florida squad will be the player to step forward and contain Jarome Iginla like in Calgary's past series. Word has it Pavel Kubina is the man for the job, and his effectiveness will go a long way in determing the Cup outcome.
Neither group puts up that much offence, but give the Flames the edge on the blueline.
In this series, the closest battle is likely the most important in determining which team will parade around the ice with the Stanley Cup.
Nikolai Khabibulin and Miikka Kiprusoff ... both names a mouthful, and in these playoffs both stoppers have been a handful for opposing forwards looking to advance their team to subsequent rounds.
Khabibulin started the playoffs on fire, literally shutting out the Islanders in the first round, but has seen his play slip some in the two rounds since. Bottom line, however, he got his team through.
Miikka Kiprusoff has stumbled in the odd game through the playoffs, but is known both for bouncing back after tough starts and getting better and series have wound down. Some of his best hockey of the post season was played in games five and six of the Detroit and San Jose series.
The Lightening will find Kiprusoff to be quite the step up from Robert Esche
SLIGHT EDGE: CALGARY
No point in messing around with this one ... huge edge for Tampa Bay.
The Bolts essentially dispatched the Flyers on the strength of their powerplay, as their penalty killing held their opposition to just one goal in seven games. They were simply dominant.
The Flames powerplay has been awful in the playoffs, hitting only twice in the San Jose series, and hovering in and around the 10% mark for much of the playoffs.
Defensively the Flames penalty kill has been great of late, after coming out of the gates in the first round against Vancouver a little rough around the edges (four powerplay goals against in game one).
The Lightening have the 5th ranked playoff penalty kill and the 1st ranked playoff powerplay. The Flames? The 12th and 10th respectively. The Flames had better hope for a "let 'em play" mindset from the officials.
HUGE EDGE: TAMPA BAY
Fonzie meets Bitter Beer Face!
Two good coaches, with somewhat similar styles; John Tortorella and Darry Sutter both believe in forcing the issue in hockey games, a fact that should make for a great playoff series.
Tortorella will have trouble finding a sparring partner for his post game press conferences in Sutter, a coach that has stayed away from post game shots to the opponent through the playoffs. Tortorella has gone on record saying such incidents wouldn't happen in the finals as he has too much respect for Sutter, but expect that to go away quickly if the Flames gain the upper hand early.
Tampa has the edge in talent and because of that the coaching hasn't been as much a factor in getting them to the final, edge goes to Calgary and their ring leader Darryl Sutter.
SLIGHT EDGE: CALGARY
Neither team can lean on a world of experience as both clubs have the majority of their rosters new to the Stanley Cup playoffs, let alone the Finals.
The heart string factor goes to the Bolts as Dave Andreychuk, a man of 40 years, is making his first finals appearance in his career, giving the Lightening that "win one for the gipper" angle that Hollywood loves.
The Flames have the Canada's team angle, something that could act as a positive rallying cry, could act as added pressure, or may matter little when it comes right down to it.
The big intangible? The passing of the Montreal curse. The Flames, having not won a playoff series since becoming the only team to ever win a cup on Montreal Forum ice shed their curse earlier this spring, but the Lightening are now saddled with a new one. No team that has defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the last 20 years have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Very ironic, that a Montreal curse now plays into the Flames hands, and that this series starts 15 years to the day that Calgary paraded the cup in Montreal.
The Lightening are dangerous offensively and have a deadly powerplay. Where have you heard that before? Likely in each of the last three playoff rounds.
It says here that the Lightening will come up against that red battering ram much like the previous three favoured opponents have. The script will then follow with quotes by Tampa coaches and players bemoaing the fact that they aren't working hard enough, and that they need to dig down deeper and let their natural edge in talent rise to the surface.
When you see that ... you know Calgary has them right where they want them.
Tampa's a great team, but they're nothing Calgary hasn't seen before.
Iginla and Kiprusoff battle it out for the Conn Smythe, the edge going to Iginla in the end as the captain parades the Stanley Cup around Saddledome ice on Saturday June 5th. The City, never needing any added incentive to party, gets a weekend to whoop it up real good.