The more things change...
Today begins what I hope will be a seven part retrospective of last year's Stanley Cup Finals. Rather than a bland, dry recap, I hope to tell the story from the point of view of a Flames fan. Dry recaps can still be found on the websites of all major sports sites, but hockey, more than perhaps any other sport, is ruled by emotion.
Today, two sides are locked in a life-or-death struggle for supremacy over the National Hockey League. One year ago, the same could be said. Except that one year ago, the battle was fought on the ice, as the Stanley Cup Finals opened up featuring the unlikely Tampa Bay Lightning, underrated by everyone in hockey and the impossible Calgary Flames, who had no business even being there.
I always had something of a "dismissive liking" of the Lightning before this series. While I doubt I would have cared either way if they didn't exist, they were a team I didn’t mind cheering for, and if Montreal or Ottawa couldn’t make the finals, Tampa was as good a choice as any to represent the East. However, that feeling died the second the final buzzer sounded a few nights earlier, and Dave Andreychuk ignored the Prince of Wales Trophy.
You were now the enemy. I hated you. By the end of the series, I would come to hate some of you more than others, but let's leave that for the game six recap...
We had already knocked off all three division champions from the West. The top team of the weakest division in the East shouldn’t be much of a problem, or so many of us thought. The result of game one only reinforced this belief. In Calgary, the media was throwing out stats like "80% of the teams that win game one go on to win the Cup."
And really, why should we have felt worried after the first game? Despite six days off, Tampa couldn’t take advantage of Calgary's rust, generating few great scoring chances. The vaunted Lightning powerplay only managed to go 1-5, and gave up a shorthanded goal on Iginla's remarkable second effort play. When the Flames got their legs under them, they simply rolled right over Tampa's defense, and by the time the second period had ended, the Flames were up 3-0.
While a lot of people - especially in Tampa - were talking about the "skill and finesse" of the Lightning vs. the "dirty goons" from Calgary, this game proved immediately that such characterizations are not very accurate, as the Flames simply out skilled the Lightning in the first two periods, while the Lightning resorted to the goon show in the third.
On the same play in the third, Cory Stillman left his feet to elbow Marcus Nilson in the head, while Andre Roy crosschecked Ville Niemenen into the boards from behind. Both plays should have resulted in major penalties, as both were deliberate attempts to injure, however the referees ultimately chose to only call minor penalties against the two players. It is still absolutely baffling that the league would announce that it would suspend Stillman only if Nilson was unable to play in game 2. Just goes to show the league hadn't learned a thing from the Bertuzzi incident, but that is a can of worms that I really don’t want to open right now.
Honestly, what did we have to fear from this Tampa Bay Lightning team? We outworked them, we out chanced them, we outscored them, our goaltending was better, and when push came to shove, the Lightning could only counter with cheap shots.
Though one realistically had to expect Tampa would rebound and return to its own game, on this night one year ago, we were only interested in partying.
After all, 80% of teams that win game one go on to win the Cup.