TAMPA, Fla. – Three months ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning (search) wouldn't have believed this. Three days ago, the Calgary Flames wouldn't have, either.
The Lightning, one of the worst teams in pro sports for most of their 12 seasons, are the Stanley Cup (search) champions. The still-young franchise won it with a very old formula, with their stars excelling in the biggest game of the season.
Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice, including the critical first goal just as he did in the conference finals, and the resilient Lightning held off the Calgary Flames (search) 2-1 in Game 7 Monday night to win their first Stanley Cup.
The Flames, threatening to become one of the most unexpected champions in NHL history, were held to only seven shots in a dismal first two periods before making a frantic late surge started by Craig Conroy's power-play goal midway through the third.
"We just tried to get through it, and we found a way," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It's unbelievable. It's a great feeling."
Now the question is how long the Lightning will rule. The NHL's labor agreement runs out Sept. 15, and all signs point to a lengthy lockout that will significantly delay or shut down the 2004-05 season.
"We're going to walk forever together (as champions), no matter what happens from now on," Martin St. Louis said.
Tortorella insisted his team would win only if his best players outplayed Calgary's, and they did exactly that by winning the final two games after Calgary went home for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.
Fedotenko scored on goals created by Conn Smythe Award winner Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin held off Calgary's late flurry while stopping 16 shots, including a remarkable save on Jordan Leopold when the net appeared wide open.
While it was the familiar names who came through for Tampa Bay, the Flames' Jarome Iginla all but disappeared in the final two games after being the impact player of the finals until then. He went the last six periods without a shot after scoring a playoff-leading 13 goals.
"It's the toughest loss by a thousand times," said Iginla, who couldn't deliver Canada's first Cup champion in its national sport since the 1993 Canadiens. "It's a very good season and I'm so proud of everybody but that hurts more than anything else I've been a part of."
Tampa Bay, an expansion franchise in 1992 and one of the league's worst teams for much of the time since, joined the 2001 Avalanche as the only teams to overcome a 3-2 deficit in the finals in 33 years.
Maybe it's only coincidence, but in each series a 22-season veteran who had never won the Cup finally did so. Colorado's Ray Bourque did it in 2001, and 40-year-old Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk finally lifted the Stanley Cup after playing a record 1,758 games before Monday without winning it.
"It's awesome," Andreychuk said. "It took me 29 years (of hockey) to get here, and I'm so proud of our guys because we got a Game 7 at home because we worked hard all year long."
Tampa Bay didn't reach even the second round of the playoffs until last season, then overcame a midseason slump this season before peaking at the right time. After starting 7-0-1, they lost seven of nine and were only 15-14-6-1 at Christmas time, when Richards had only four goals.
Richards epitomized the turnaround; he finished with 26 goals and 79 points, then had a record seven game-winning goals among his 12 postseason goals.
"It was an awful first half," Richards said. "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."
Now, Lightning owner Bill Davidson can pull off a previously unseen single-season sweep of the NBA and NHL titles. His Detroit Pistons lead the Lakers 1-0 in the NBA Finals.
The Flames were going for a record 11th road victory in 14 playoff games and their third in Tampa, only to find out home ice does matter — just as it usually does in Game 7. Home teams are 11-2 in finals Game 7s and 10-1 since 1950, with only the 1971 Montreal Canadiens winning on the road in the last 54 years.
Again, there's no place like home ice in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. And the Stanley Cup still can't find its way back home to Canada, which has had just two Cup winners in 15 seasons.
"This is probably the lowest it's going to get," Conroy said. "It's just a frustrating thing when this team works so hard. We felt like we deserve better."
No doubt the Flames will relive for years the missed opportunity in Game 6, when the Stanley Cup was in their building and an entire city was preparing to blow its lid off to celebrate — until St. Louis scored the winning goal 33 seconds into the second overtime.
"That's the most disappointing thing," Conroy said. "We had two chances, one at home, and we didn't get it done."
The team scoring first won every game in the series, so Tampa Bay got a huge confidence boost when Fedotenko scored on a power play 13:31 into the first — much like he scored the go-ahead goal in a 2-1 victory over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
Richards' shot from the point was kicked away by Miikka Kiprusoff to Fedotenko in the slot, and he lined a shot past the goalie, who stopped 13 of 15 shots.
Robyn Regehr, Calgary's most dependable defenseman, played despite apparently injuring an ankle or foot in Game 6 and was on the ice for Fedotenko's goal. Flames RW Shean Donovan missed his second straight game with a leg injury as the long, physical series wore on the Flames more than on Tampa Bay, which played one game without an injured Fedotenko and defenseman Pavel Kubina.
"In the end, they just had more legs than we did. We were beaten by a great team," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. "I thought our guys played great."
Fedotenko's second goal of the game and third of the finals was created by a dazzling bit of stickhandling by Lecavalier, who hadn't figured in any scoring since Game 2. Lecavalier took Cory Stillman's pass in the left corner, spun around to shed Steve Montador and another defender and put a perfect pass on Fedotenko's stick in the slot with about 51/2 minutes left in the second period.