Monday, May 24, 2004


2004 Stanley Cup Finals Preview

The Stanley Cup finals won�t be a ratings bonanza for the NHL, and ABC executives are jumping out of windows, but who cares? For once, we aren�t subjected to the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalance, New Jersey Devils, or Detroit Red Wings in the big show.

The high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning will take on the crash-and-bang Calgary Flames. Offense vs. Defense, speed vs. more speed, and so on. The small market Flames carry the hopes of most Canadian hockey fans as they take on one of Bettman�s pet expansion projects.

Here�s how the match-up shapes up in my eyes.


Both goaltenders are Stanley Cup Finals �rookies� and both love to show the leather. Mikka Kiprusoff and Nik Khabibulin seem to use their glove hand to make saves whenever possible.

The Stats:
Khabibulin � 16GP 12-4 1.64GAA .939 SV%
Kiprusoff � 19GP 12-7 1.89 GAA .930 SV%

Overall, Khabibulin has put up better numbers than Kiprusoff. That being said, Khabibulin piled up most of his gaudy numbers against �inferior� competition in Montreal and Long Island, while Kiprusoff has had to play against �superior� competition in each round.

Since each goalie is playing so well, coaches Tortorella and Sutter will need to exploit the weaknesses in each opposing �tender.

Kiprusoff � He�s an aggressive goalie who often gets a bit anxious to make the first save... and he can get off of his game when he�s run into and has to fight for his vision through traffic. Dave Andreychuk will need to park his big booty in front of Kiprusoff on the Power Play like he usually does, and the Lightning will have to get shots onto Kiprusoff�s stick side.

Khabibulin � The flashy Khabibulin has been weak to soft five-hole goals through the playoffs, so look for the Flames snipers to shoot there whenever they have an open chance. Khabibulin is prone to lapses in concentration, so the Flames will hope that Khabibulin has some off nights during the series. If Khabi lets in a weak goal early in any game, the floodgates could open wide.

Both goalies are pretty weak in handling the puck, so expect both teams to take advantage of this by dumping the puck in and putting pressure on the goalies to make bad decisions.

In the end, there is no clear advantage to either team in goal. I will give the slight edge to Calgary, simply because Kiprusoff has been more valuable to his team up until this point, and goaltender is more important to the low-scoring Flames than it is to the high-powered Lightning.


Calgary � The Flames have a very punishing defensive-minded corps that will lay the body on the Lightning forwards at every opportunity. Rhett Warrener, Toni Lydman, and Robyn Regehr are tough to score on and are adept at blocking shots.

As the Flames defense sticks to its own end so well, they don�t produce much in the way of offense. The Flames defense corps has accounted for just 3 goals in their 19 games, as Jordon Leopold is their lone true offensive threat from the back end. To their credit, the Flames defense does a good job of kickstarting the Flames opportunistic counter-attack game with crisp, accurate passing.

Injuries: A big blow for the Flames as Canadian Diving team member, and Canucks fans least favourite player, Denis Gauthier is injured and will miss the entire finals with a �lower body� (knee) injury. Toni Lydman is �probable� and may play in the finals, albeit at far less than 100%.

Tampa Bay � Coach Tortorella has a group of very offensively adept defensemen, and has given them the green light to join the attack at most opportunities. You will often see the Lightning defensemen join the rush to create odd-man situations. Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, and Daryl Sydor all have a history and pedigree for creating offense. Amazingly, this group has only accounted for ONE goal through the entire playoffs. They have been piling up the assists (21 in 16 games), but haven�t been lighting the red light. If this group gets going at all, the Flames will be in big trouble.

The 3 offensive d-men are well complimented by 4 stay-at-home defensive d-men in Jassen Cullimore, Cory Sarich, Nolan Pratt, and Brad Lukowich.

On paper, the Lightning defense looks rather ordinary. If you were an owner of a fantasy sim league team with group, chances are you aren�t near the top of your standings.

Give a big certificate of merit to coach Tortorella for turning this group of misfits (except Sydor) into a cohesive group that plays better than the sum of their parts. Just look at these guys�

Dan Boyle � In Florida, Boyle was an exciting, and very small, offensive defenseman that would often look like a 4th forward on the ice. He spent so much time in the offensive zone, that his goaltenders never knew him on a first name basis. His aversion to defense and public arguments with his coaches soon led Boyle to an AHL demotion, and later a trade to the Lightning for the paltry price of a 5th round draft pick (Martin Tuma, who never panned out).

Pavel Kubina � Here is a big defenseman with great wheels that gave his former coaches many grey hairs and excuse for Rogaine addiction. Kubina loved to pinch in and score goals, much too often sacrificing defense. Eventually, he was put up to the left-wing forward spot on the Power Play to take advantage of his size and zest for offense. On top of that, Kubina just didn�t use his size to punish opposing players.

Jassen Cullimore � A 2nd round pick of the Canucks in 1991, Cullimore was nothing more than a big lug of a 7th defenseman during his tenure with the Canucks. He later went on to the Canadiens, where he played less than impressive hockey. After 6 years, Cullimore was nothing more than a slow-skating fringe defenseman who didn�t use his size well enough and was always within a hair of AHL demotion before finding his way to Tampa Bay.

Cory Sarich � Another 2nd round pick, this time out of Buffalo. Sarich was an offensive minded defenseman in the WHL who piled up a lot of points mainly on the strength of his powerful slap-shot.
At the NHL level, Sarich looked to be over his head and his offense disappeared as he found that his slapshot couldn�t produce everything for him. Buffalo basically tossed him into a trade in order to acquire Chris Gratton, and Sarich didn�t look like much more than a fringe defenseman.

Now fast forward to today, and each of these defensemen has improved their games immensely and are core parts in a successful Stanley Cup finalist.
Under Tortorella, Dan Boyle has matured and learned to be much more dependable in his own end. Pavel Kubina, while still pillowy soft at times, has learned when to jump into the play and went to stay back and shut up. Kubina still piles up the goals (17 this year), and plays solid defense most nights.

Cullimore is the type of defenseman that the Canucks could really use now�A top-4 defensive defenseman with good size and shot-blocking ability. After many baby steps and rookie mistakes, Cullimore is now extremely valuable to the Lightnings chances.

As for Sarich, Tortorella has certainly realized that Sarich will not be a big point producer at the NHL level. So, rather than focus on what Sarich can�t do, Tortorella has helped mould big Sarich into a reliable stalwart on the defensive end.

If more teams were this good at turning throwaways and misfits into positive-impact players, they would likely realize that spending big dough on overpriced free agents just isn�t worth it many times.

With the injuries to Gauthier and Lydman, I give a slight edge on defense to the well-rounded Lightning squad. There is always the chance that the Lightning�s defense will leave themselves exposed to Calgary�s counterattack, but the Flames just can�t match up nearly enough offensively when all is said and done.


Calgary � Without a doubt, the Flames depend a great deal on their first line of Gelinas-Conroy-Iginla for their offense. This trio has 21 of Calgary�s 46 goals in the playoffs, while the second unit of Nilson-Donovan-Nieminen has just 10 goals.
With such a pop-gun offense, the Flames rely on their demonlike work-ethic, their ferocious forechecking, and attention to defense. Coach Sutter likes to roll 4 lines, and the Flames will use their physical prowess to punish and weaken the Tampa Bay defense.

The Flames will certainly take few chances on the attack, so expect the Flames to have 3 or 4 men back on every rush. The Calgary forward corps has great speed, so they can easily keep up with the faster Tampa forwards while on the defensive.

Tampa Bay � It doesn�t take a rocket surgeon to see that Tampa Bay forwards clearly have more offensive skill than the Flames� forwards. The top two units of Fedotenko-Lecavalier-StLouis and Modin-Richards-Stillman give the Bolts two very productive and effective options while Dave Andreychuk anchors a great shutdown line with Taylor and Afanasenkov on the wings.

In addition to turning himself into a wise and powerful defensive center, Andreychuk is a big presence on the Power Play as he always has been throughout his entire career. Captain Andreychuk will finally get his shot at the big prize after the longest draught in NHL history. Since he is one of my favourite players, and the player I model my own game against, it�s almost reason enough to pull for the Lightning to win it all.

The Achilles heel of the Bolts is really their reliance on just 3 lines. With 7 defensemen to be dressed, and fourth-line goons Andre Roy and Chris DingDongman playing just 5 minutes a game, the Bolts top 3 lines get a lot of ice time each and every game. In a long 6 or 7 game series, this could play into the hands of the Flames who do a better job of spreading their ice time around. Any injury to the Bolts top-9 will put a dent in their attack as they don�t have anyone who can jump in and provide nearly the same level of play as the guys they normally dress.

Overall, I give a big edge to the Lightning for their skill, size, and offensive ability. The Lightning can play good defense to go along with their offense, while the Flames will have a very tough time catching up if they ever fall behind the Lightning in any game.

Coaching -

Both coach Sutter and Tortorella fall into the �Master Motivator� category of coaches.
Flames players would jump in front of trains and bullets for Sutter, and put their bodies on the line each and every night, while Tortorella acts like a grouchy old codger and he likes to challenge his players and have them prove themselves to him each and every night.

Sutter � He�s not known as the most cerebral guy around, but he�s used his dual position of GM/Coach to acquire the players that fit into his system without giving up too much in significance. Markus Nilson, Kiprusoff, and Nieminen were acquired for Jason Morgan, two 2nd round picks, and a conditional draft pick.

Sutter challenges his players to put their heart and soul into each and every shift, and his players love to play for him. Sutter was a blue-collar lunchpail player, and he demands only a complete effort from his players: nothing more, nothing less

Tortorella - He came into the NHL with a good minor-league pedigree, but wasn�t well known to most anyone when he started out.

Torts has succeeded by challenging his players to prove him wrong. As is publicly seen with his battles with Prince Vince Lecavalier, Tortorella is very critical of his players, and is a very demanding coach. Players want to play well to prove Torts right or wrong, and shut the Fonzy look-a-like up.

Torts has also done a great job in getting the most out of the talent that he has been given. As talked about above, Tortarella has turned a very shaky-looking defensive unit into a very cohesive group that plays well at both ends. Tortorella has created an environment that plays to the strengths of his roster, and the players have succeeded because they�ve been given a chance to play to their talents. Rather than try to change his players too much, Tortarella has adapted his style to the types of players he has. Few coaches do this and do this well.

I don�t give any edge to either side on coaching. Both teams are well-coached units and you can expect a full effort from every player on each roster on any given night.

Final Predicition � Tampa Bay in 6.

Let�s face it, Cinderella has no problems making it to the ball, but the chariot always turns into a pumpkin at midnight.

What do Carolina, Florida, Anaheim, Buffalo, and Washington all have in common? They all made the big show, but had their dreams shattered in the end.

When all of the chips are down, the cream rises to the top and the clear favourites prevail.

The Bolts just have so much more firepower than the Flames, and they have the goaltending and defense to match. It would be foolish to count the Flames out, but they call it an �upset� for a reason.

I�ll be cheering for the Flames to bring a Stanley Cup victory back to Canada, but my Vegas bucks are all on the Lightning to win it all.

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