EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

2004 STANLEY CUP FINALS PREVIEW

Calgary Flames (42-30-7-3) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (46-22-8-6)

Season Series:  Advantage Tampa Bay, Lightning won 6-2 in only meeting of the regular season

It’s been 10 long years since we last saw a Canadian based team in the Stanley Cup Finals, and going into this season nobody expected the next one to end up being the Calgary Flames.  The boys from the Stampede City have done what Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal were not able to do, and now they have their eyes set on bringing the Cup back to its roots.

Some weird karma surrounds this playoff run for Calgary.  It all started with the first round match up against their B.C. rivals from Vancouver.  Every time the Canucks and Flames have played each other in the playoffs, the winner of the series has made it to the finals each and every time, and as they say, the tradition continues.

Calgary earned their trip to the finals by knocking off not one, but three division leaders in Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose.  How fitting is it then, to be up against the top team in the entire Eastern Conference with the ultimate prize on the line?  

The road for Tampa Bay has seemed much easier.  It took them only nine games to advance to the conference finals, with their only real challenge so far being the Philadelphia Flyers, another division leader who went by the wayside in seven games.

Let’s make no mistake, neither team would be here if it wasn’t for their goaltenders.  Miikka Kiprusoff, who has been called the J.S. Giguere of 2004, has backstopped the Flames, and Nikolai Khabibulin has been almost a mirror image of his Western Conference colleague.  Both goalies have posted a goals against average of under 2.00.  If Calgary has any hope of winning the series, they have to make this continue.

Not only do they need the goaltending, both teams will need to make home ice their advantage, rather than their enemy.  In the Calgary-San Jose series, only one game out of six resulted in a home victory, which simply won’t get it done in the finals.  The Flames clearly aren’t letting this get to them, however, and with an 8-2 road playoff record, why would they?

At this time of year a lot of talk is made about possible candidates for the Conn Smythe trophy, the playoff MVP award.  If Martin Gelinas can once again come up big with the series winning goal, he should be a heavy favorite for it, but then again team captain Jarome Iginla, defenseman Robyn Regehr and goalie Kiprusoff are also sure to garner more than just a few votes.  Just remember, the award is for the most valuable player for the entire playoffs, not just one round.  If you ask me, give it to all three.  For Tampa Bay, consideration would have to be given first to Khabibulin, but also Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards or Vincent Lecavalier will be suitable nominees as well.

Defense may come before offense, but experience wins games.  It seems like an accomplishment for Calgary to be here, but if you look up and down the roster, there is more playoff experience in Darryl Sutter’s pinky finger alone than there is on the entire Tampa Bay roster, but this means absolutely nothing now.

If you thought the final series was exciting the past couple of years, you haven’t seen anything yet.  With all due respect to New Jersey and Anaheim, these teams don’t play the worn out neutral zone trap style we’ve grown accustomed to seeing year in and year out.  Calgary and Tampa both play the game with a relentless fore checking in-your-face offense which should yield one of two results, either a high scoring shootout type of series, or a tentative “don’t let them get the first goal” defense first style.  Something tells me the latter just isn’t going to happen, as both teams have players that can score and score often, and both teams are extremely well coached.  They say Lightning never strikes twice, let alone three times in the same playoff year (or something like that).  As evenly matched as the two teams are, expect this to come down to who wants it more.  So far, both teams have shown a willingness to win I wish we could see more often (the teams I’m referring to here know who they are).

What more can I say, only to say expect the unexpected, and may the best team win!

Prediction: Flames in 6

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you think having Tampa Bay in the finals is weird, get used to the idea.  By the time you read this, the Florida Panthers are expected to name their former coach Mike Keenan as their new general manager, and former Ottawa Senators bench boss Jacques Martin as their new head coach.  As for Ottawa, their loss will clearly be Florida’s gain.

Don’t look now, but Pittsburgh’s AHL farm team, the Wilkes-Barre Penguins, are one win away from going to the Calder Cup Final, as they beat the Hartford Wolf Pack 4-3 in overtime to take a stranglehold on their semi-final series 3 games to 2.  Hartford is the farm team of the New York Rangers.  Will wonders never cease?

Since it’s now down to the Stanley Cup Finals, the major networks have seen it fit to put the games on during prime time.  This means we’ll finally get to see some hockey on Saturday nights for a change.  If the series goes the distance, we’ll actually see Hockey Night in Canada three weekends in a row.  What a novel idea!  Here’s hoping the new deal the NHL recently signed with NBC will mean less weekend afternoon games next time we have a season, so that the vast majority of us can actually watch the games.

I don’t think I’ve seen as much action on the ice as we’ve seen off the ice during the whole Mike Danton ordeal.  First he’s Mike Jefferson, then he legally changed his name to Danton.  I mentioned before this is a story of O.J. Simpson proportions, but I was wrong.  This whole plot is playing out more like a Stephen King novel.  If you believe Danton, he’s innocent.  If you believe the prosecutors, he’s guilty.  Accused of plotting to kill his agent David Frost, he is pleading not guilty, yet the prosecutors feel he should remain in jail for his own safety.  There’s a subplot here we’ve yet to hear about, and I get the feeling we may have to wait for the made for T.V. movie before anybody tells us what really happened.  One thing’s for sure, we know the gloves will fit, as he wore them all season long.

Can somebody, anybody, please tell me how Keith Primeau was passed over for Team Canada’s World Cup roster?

In yet another hockey violence incident that has people scratching their heads, the AHL has suspended Hamilton Bulldogs forward Alexander Perezhogin indefinitely without pay and pending further review from the league.  Perezhogin, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, received a match penalty for using his hockey stick like a golf club against the head of Cleveland Barons defenseman Garrett Stafford during a Calder Cup playoff game.  Question is, would the punishment be as severe had it not been for the Todd Bertuzzi incident?

And finally, if you haven’t already seen it ten times, be sure and rent or buy “Miracle”, the Disney movie about Herb Brooks’ 1980 Miracle on Ice, now available on VHS or DVD.  We all lived it, and you won’t regret experiencing it all over again.  I'm now torn between which Kurt Russell movie I like best, this one, or "Escape From New York".

Here we are, yet again, close to the end of the season.  Enjoy the finals everybody, and cross your fingers we’ll have a new season in October.

 

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