TAMPA, Fla. – When John Tortorella became their coach midway through the 2000-01 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning (search) were a joke of a franchise, arguably the worst in American pro sports.
They won an average of once every three games, playing in an arena that often held bigger crowds for Arena Football games than their own — and that wasn't the worst of it. What worried Tortorella was he didn't sense any real commitment to turning things around, not even from some of his top players.
My how that changed, and in a hurry. Now the Lightning are the Stanley Cup (search) champions, thanks to a 2-1 victory Monday over Calgary in a finals Game 7 that completed one of the swiftest turnarounds in NHL history.
Maybe when Tortorella breaks it all down, that will be the most meaningful aspect of a totally unpredictable championship. The team that once was satisfied to take the easy way out persevered while becoming only the second team in 33 years to overcame a 3-2 deficit in the finals.
``To do it in three years, to get to where we're at today, who is kidding who?'' Tortorella said. ``That wasn't in the plan.''
The Lightning, who had won only one playoff series in their history until this season, got two goals from Ruslan Fedotenko and a standout goaltending effort from Nikolai Khabibulin to win the first Stanley Cup in the franchise's mostly miserable 12-year history.
``We were in last place for four years, now we are winners,'' said Vincent Lecavalier, who set up Fedotenko's decisive goal in the second period. ``It's unbelievable. It's great.''
The Lightning needed to win Game 6 in Calgary on Saturday just to force a Game 7. They did, a 3-2 overtime decision that broke the hearts of thousands upon thousands of fans who gathered to celebrate Canada's first Stanley Cup championship since 1993.
In Game 7, Fedotenko scored in each of the first two periods before the Flames came on with a rush after Craig Conroy scored midway through the third period. Finally, though, time ran out on one of the most unexpected NHL playoff runs in years.
The sixth-seeded Flames (search), who missed the playoffs the previous seven seasons, took out division champions Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose and came within a goal of eliminating another in the finals.
``In the end, we ran out of gas,'' coach Darryl Sutter said.
Especially star Jarome Iginla, the dominant player for much of the series. He was almost invisible while being held without a shot Monday as the Lightning concentrated on shutting down the Flames' one game-altering player.
Calgary also was without injured forward Shean Donovan, who missed the final two games, and top defenseman Robyn Regehr was bothered by an ankle injury that clearly affected his play.
Still, Conroy said, the difference in the series was the Flames' inability to finish the job at home Saturday, when the Cup seemingly was theirs. Calgary would have been the lowest-seeded team to win a Stanley Cup under the present eight-team seeding format and only the second to win a four-round playoffs without having home-ice advantage in any series.
``That's the most disappointing thing,'' he said. ``We had two chances, one at home, and we didn't get it done.''
Midway through this season, it didn't seem the Lightning would, either. After getting off to a 7-0-1 start, the Lightning floundered were only a game above .500 at the holidays before finishing strong.
Brad Richards, chosen as the playoffs MVP, epitomized the turnaround. He had only four goals by Christmas before finishing with 26 goals and 79 points, then had a record seven game-winning goals among his 12 postseason goals.
``It seemed like all of our top players went in a slump. I thought the world was falling apart. But I went home for Christmas for the first time in six or seven years ... it was only for 24 hours, but it made me realize how fortunate I am to be in the NHL.''
Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk does, too. After playing 22 seasons without a championship — just as Ray Bourque did in 2001 — he was finally handed the Stanley Cup for the first time.
His first thought when he lifted it?
``Not falling, not dropping it,'' he said, laughing.
Not a chance.