After the conference finals, my prediction success rate stands at 9-5. I scored six of eight in round one, two of four in round two and one of two in round three.
So I’ve made some mistakes, but what I wrote seven weeks ago still stands: goaltending rules this playoff season. Maybe that’s not such an extraordinary prediction, but this year the usual suspects couldn’t quite get their story straight. Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph, the three 2002 gold-medal-winning Canadian goalies, all folded in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff looked like Mike Vernon, and Tampa Bay’s Nikolai Khabibulin finally overcame his reputation as good but not timely--and voila: Flames and Lightning in the finals.
Now this is a series that could see lots of sparks flying. Lightning could strike at any moment, and the Calgary team is sure to be on fire. Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m placing a moratorium on fire- and weather-related metaphors until the finals are over. Thank you.
I suppose the best way to compare these teams is to go position by position. In goal, I have to say that Kiprusoff looks more like the goalie that can frustrate his opponents. Khabibulin, though still strong, in my opinion still doesn’t have the ability to really make the other team believe they can’t score. Kiprusoff, on the other hand, does.
On defence, Calgary’s group is young and depleted: Denis Gauthier and Toni Lydman have only played six and three games respectively, forcing Steve Montador and Mike Commodore to play much more than rookies normally would in a long playoff season. But they have done well, playing simply, using their big bodies to move the puck out of harm’s way and, in Montador’s case, even chipping in a game-winning goal. The top two D-men for Calgary, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, were recently named to their national World Cup teams (USA and Canada, respectively) and have scored a combined fourteen points, all while going up against some of the league’s best players. Coach Darryl Sutter split the two up after the first series, but they have continued to provide the Flames with the big-rig defence play any team needs to win the Cup.
For Tampa Bay, a heavy helping of young and offensive-minded defencemen, such as Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina, and a dash of Darryl Sydor’s experience (he won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with Dallas) are the recipe for a fast transition game that sets the Lightning’s forwards flying down into the opposing zone. But Kubina is not all offence: in the last three games against the Flyers, he played almost every shift against Keith Primeau (the best Canadian hockey player not on the World Cup team) and successfully prevented him from using his size and skill to eliminate the Lightning. Cory Sarich and Brad Lukowich are solid as well.
It’s tough to call, but the Calgary defence has eliminated three division champions, while the Lightning had it pretty easy up until this series with the Flyers. I’m going to say advantage Calgary.
On offence, it’s tough to give any team the edge over Tampa Bay: they have the top scorer in the league in Martin St. Louis, not to mention that Brad Richards, Fred Modin and Vincent Lecavalier have all been able to score pretty much at will during these playoffs. They have good veteran faceoff men in Dave Andreychuck and Tim Taylor, and Ruslan Fedotenko is as hot as, well, an abrupt electric discharge from cloud to cloud or from cloud to earth accompanied by the emission of light (sorry, no more; I promise).
Yet how can one count out the Flames? Jarome Iginla is arguably the best all-round player in the game, which means that not only can he score, but he hits and fights as well. He’s probably got the edge over St. Louis in that area at least. The timely scoring of Martin Gelinas (he’s sunk the winning goal in all three series-clinching games so far) and the furtive quick-wittedness of Ville Nieminen (his no-look goal against the Sharks in game two was just ridiculous) say to me that Calgary is a team of destiny.
On paper, the Lightning look stronger at the forward position. All together, though, it seems to me that the Flames have a much more complete package. It’s very close (as one might expect seeing as the two teams have eliminated six of the other fourteen playoff teams), and maybe I’m just tainted by this Alberta air, but it really feels to me like the Flames are going to win. I’m probably going to win some money in my hockey pools either way--oops, I mean “win the praise and respect of my peers” (who gambles on hockey?)--but it is with both my heart and my mind that I predict that Calgary will win in six games.
Go Flames Go!
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist gets rough in the corners once a week until the end of the playoffs.