- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay and Calgary rosters are sprinkled with forwards who have been in the NHL Finals. When it comes to the blue line, however, the unquestioned experience leaders are the Lightning’s Darryl Sydor and the Flames’ Rhett Warrener.

And as everybody knows, experience is most valuable when it comes down to playoff pressure, especially in the finals. That’s why Sydor and Warrener are extremely important figures as the teams prepare for tonight’s Game6 in Calgary, Alberta, with the Flames leading the best-of-7 series 3-2.

“Syd has been in the finals and won the Cup,” Lightning coach John Tortorella said. “He makes the first pass in transition. He has character. He’s a pro.”

Which is why Tampa Bay acquired Sydor in January from Columbus, where the Stars had dispatched him although he had scored 40 points with a plus-22 defensive rating in 2002-2003.

Sydor had played second fiddle to Paul Coffey and Rob Blake as a rookie on Los Angeles’ Western Conference champions in 1993 and then to Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov in Dallas, where the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and reached the finals again in 2000.

“I had my eyes wide open during the first run and by the second one, I had settled into a supporting role,” said Sydor, 32. “Leaving Dallas was a shock and I was disappointed when I was traded again, but then you think about the opportunity and you’re excited. I’m playing more and I have had to be more of a leader than I was in Dallas. I don’t have to be a rah-rah guy every day, but when I have something to get off my chest, I do.”

Tampa Bay went 22-6-2-3 after acquiring Sydor to gain the top seed in the East, but then suffered its first playoff loss, 3-0 to the New York Islanders in the conference quarterfinals, Sydor told his teammates they were playing like it was just another year and that they should never take the playoffs for granted.

The Lightning won their next eight games and are two victories from their first title — even though their other six defensemen had 91 games combined in the playoffs compared to Sydor’s 116.

“We never really had that one guy we looked at [as a leader] on defense, and Darryl has filled that role,” said Brad Lukowich, who played 31/2 years with Sydor in Dallas.

Sydor is such a leader on the ice that he responded from helping to cause Calgary’s winning goal in Game3 with 22:31 of solid play in Game4 and did so while playing on the right side rather than the left because of an injury to partner Pavel Kubina. Sydor said it was like driving on the wrong side of the road, but he got the job done.

While Sydor seeks to double his pleasure with a second Stanley Cup title, Warrener is looking for his first Cup at 28. He fell short with Florida as a rookie in 1996 and with Buffalo to Sydor and the Stars three years later. Unlike the more versatile Sydor, who has had four seasons with at least 40 points, Warrener is all about defense. He has 70 points during his nine-year career, but at plus-62 he’s 17 ahead of Sydor, who has been on better teams.

“Rhett’s probably our most underrated player,” said Flames coach Darryl Sutter, who traded for Warrener last summer to add experience to a young defensive corps with only one member who had been to postseason. “He plays against everybody’s best players. Rhett’s a good playoff player because he can keep it at a real disciplined fashion. He doesn’t take penalties, yet he’s always in the tough areas. He’s our Mr. Steady.”

Both Stephane Yelle, who has won two Cups, and Martin Gelinas, who has won one and has been to three finals, called Warrener the Flames’ locker room leader.

“Rhett has been a very calming influence, especially after we’ve won a series,” said defenseman Mike Commodore. “He doesn’t let us get too excited because he knows you have to win four series to be successful. On the ice, Rhett is always in the right place at the right time and makes the simple play. You know what you’re going to get with Rhett every single night — solid defense — and anything offensive is a bonus.”

Warrener openly dislikes talking about himself, so anything he says is a bonus.

“I appreciate being in the finals a little more as I get older and have fewer chances left, but it won’t be satisfying until we win the Cup,” he said.

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