Originally created 05/25/04

Mirror image: Lightning, Flames are similar teams with the same goal



TAMPA, Fla. -- Their aggressive styles are so similar, their coaches so alike, their players so interchangeable, the Tampa Bay Lightning probably could swap jerseys with the Calgary Flames midway through the Stanley Cup final without the casual fan realizing it.

The two modest-market franchises usually begin a season with few expectations and end it with meager accomplishments. They possess stars - Jarome Iginla in Calgary, Nikolai Khabibulin in Tampa - but are populated mostly with not-so-recognizable players who don't worry about fending off autograph seekers when they go out to dinner.

Question: Martin St. Louis and Cory Stillman are the top two scorers for which team? Answer: Tampa Bay, but they also were teammates in Calgary a couple of years ago.

And while one team is based in southern Alberta, where hockey is a way of life, and the other is in south central Florida, where football is the only passion, even St. Louis is struggling to grasp what is happening.

"Who would have thought we would be here now?" he said Monday.

Not Flames goalie Miika Kiprusoff.

"I knew this was a good team, but I didn't think we were going to be in the Stanley Cup finals," he said.

Obviously, not many others did, either. But thanks to a mini-revolution that has seen the proponents of take-no-risks, trap-'til-you-drop hockey cast aside just at the time of the year when they normally thrive, the Lightning and Flames really, truly will play for the Cup.

The proof comes when they take the ice in Game 1 on Tuesday night in Tampa, where ice is most commonly found in late May in the large-scale nightlife zone in nearby Ybor City.

Frightening, isn't it?

Maybe not.

The Lightning and Flames, despite having exactly zero Stanley Cup appearances between them over the preceding 14 seasons, are threatening to shove the league, kicking and screaming, into an entirely new era. One where the only offense isn't a good defense. Where the neutral zone is a place where offense begins, not where it ends. Where breakaways are encouraged, not something to be denied. Where odd-man rushes occur every other shift, not every other game.

For a change, this final may not be the offense-free flameout so many other recent ones have been - see Mighty Ducks vs. Devils, circa 2003 - even if it isn't filled with 7-6 scores.

"Some teams may think of other ways of doing it," Lightning coach John Tortorella said Monday. "But we go about it this way. Calgary also likes to chase things down and pretty much go straight ahead. For these two teams to get here, does it change anything? That's not for us to decide, but I think it's going to be a hell of a series, with both teams going straight ahead."

Not looking back, either, even if Calgary is coming off three consecutive upsets of 100-point teams (Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose) and Tampa Bay has just accomplished a franchise first with its gritty, gut-it-out seven-game elimination of a legitimate power, the Flyers.

"A lot has been made about the small markets and (the series being) good for hockey, with a Canadian team and all that, but you know what?" Calgary coach Darryl Sutter said. "The reason these teams have some success is they are fun teams, exciting teams. And that will make the finals a good series because it will be an exciting series."

Even if NHL purists, and there are many in high places in the league, cannot imagine coaches such as Scotty Bowman, Pat Burns or Jacques Lemaire standing at a Stanley Cup final podium talking about fun and entertainment.

And for all their similarities - and they start with the goalies with microscopic goals-against averages, Kiprusoff and Khabibulin - this final is also a test of skill vs. will.

The Lightning own more scoring depth, with St. Louis, Stillman and Vincent Lecavalier, but the Flames have shut down big scorers in every series despite lacking a big-name defenseman - though Robyn Regehr soon could be one - or resorting to endless trapping or abandoning their offensive creativity.

"Tampa Bay is a fun team to watch," Kiprusoff said. "They have great forwards and a lot of speed - it's like we are, too. It's going to be a real interesting series."

Now, the NHL can only hope somebody watches the first final since 1991 that lacks a megamarket team (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) or a marquee name (New Jersey, Detroit, Dallas, Colorado).

"I think it's great to get some new blood in here," Tortorella said. "I've read comments that what's going to happen, the Lightning are in the finals ... (with) another small-market team in Calgary, so what is going on? I think it's terrific."