2004 Stanley Cup Final Preview
(East #1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (West #6) Calgary Flames Tampa Bay:
The Lightning entered the playoffs characterized as the NHL’s hell bent, high-tempo team. That quality did not show up much during the Eastern Conference Final, but Tampa won anyway. So the team can adjust its game to suit the circumstances.
Everything you need to know about the Lightning offense is in the top two lines. Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko have been together for most of the playoffs, as have Brad Richards and Fred Modin with Cory Stillman and Dave Andreychuk doing spot duty. Those lines account for the scoring. The Lightning power play buried Philadelphia, going for 7-for-14 in the last four games.
In their own zone, the Lightning outlasted the Flyers by the slimmest of margins, proving they do not wear down easily. But the defense is vulnerable to forechecking and quick breakout plays, with goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin counted on to clean up the ensuing mess. He has played well, but not as well as Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff. The defensemen don’t score much either, with offensive contributions limited to point shots on the power play.
The Flames finished sixth in the Western Conference before defeating the top three teams in the West to get to the Stanley Cup Final. They were the NHL’s third-best defensive team duringnthe regular season. Had Kiprusoff had not missed a long stretch of games with a knee injury, Calgary would have almost certainly climbed higher in the standings.
If Kiprusoff is the surprise of the year, the Calgary defense runs a close second. The top pair of Robyn Regher and Jordan Leopold has been a revelation, perhaps the best defensive unit in the playoffs. When Steve Montador, Mike Commodore and Andrew Ference were forced up the depth chart to fill in for injured team mates, the Flames looked vulnerable. But each has raised his game to previously unknown heights.
While tending towards a more physical game than Tampa, Calgary plays a style the Lightning will recognize: chase the puck as if your life depended on it, win those fifty-fifty plays along the boards, and watch the scoring chances open up from there. Jarome Iginla, Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas have emerged as the top line, but the Flames would not be here without occasional scoring throughout the lineup. Forwards like Ville Nieminen, Marcus Nilson and Shean Donovan have shown a flair for dramatic goals. Compared to Tampa, Calgary has not been effective on the power play or penalty kill.
The Issue: What will unfold when the Flames take a penalty? The Lightning, who exploited Philadelphia’s shortage of healthy defensemen, will face a more aggressive penalty kill from Calgary. At even strength, the Flyers outscored Tampa 16-10 over the course of their series. So if the Flames can limit their penalties and kill off their share, the Lightning could find themselves in a scoring drought.
The Call: It’s hard to bet against the hot goaltender. Kiprusoff has had a far tougher ride than Khabibulin throughout these playoffs, and has been equal to the challenge at every turn. If the Lightning power play keeps up its 20 per cent conversion rate, they are off to the races. Otherwise, Calgary in six.
2004 Stanley Cup Finals: Complete Schedule and Scoreboard