- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — The NHL has one certainty, at least, entering tonight’s Game7 of these grueling Stanley Cup Finals: By the end of the night, either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Calgary Flames will hoist the championship trophy.

Little else is certain for a league in which tonight’s game could be the last for many months.

The collective-bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players association expires Sept.15, and the minimal negotiations between commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow have not produced even a hint of progress.

Both the league and the union are expecting a lockout that could last well into — and perhaps wipe out — the 2004-05 season.

NHL owners say they can’t sustain the financial losses they have suffered under the current agreement as player salaries skyrocketed beyond the level of even the robust NFL.

However, a league that is ignored by most of the United States — the NHL’s already anemic television ratings fell during the Cup finals to its lowest levels since 1998 — can ill afford to stop play for an extended period and expect to return with its fan base and all 24 U.S. teams intact.

On the ice, predicting victory in a finals in which the home team has lost four of six games has been difficult, especially considering the past three games were decided by one goal. The last finals that so defied logic was in 1994, when the New York Rangers outlasted the Vancouver Canucks 4-3.

“It’s hockey at its best,” the Flames’ Steve Montador said. “I think it’s awesome. I think it’s great.”

The Lightning, who forced tonight’s Game7 by beating the Flames 3-2 in double overtime on Saturday in Calgary, have set a playoff record by failing to win or lose two in a row for 12 straight games.

Still, the Flames or Lightning will provide a feel-good story — unlike the pox-on-both-their-houses labor situation — when one of them wins the Cup tonight.

The Flames are the little team that could.

Coming off seven straight seasons without a playoff berth, the Flames will be the first team to knock off four division champions en route to the Cup if they complete the upset of the Lightning tonight.

The Flames also are the first finalists from Canada, and would be the first Cup winners from Canada, in 11 years — a prospect that has enthralled that nation. And everyone loves Flames star Jarome Iginla, the first black captain in NHL history and one of the league’s greatest ambassadors.

The Lightning counter with 40-year-old captain Dave Andreychuk, who has played more games (1,758 regular season and playoffs) without winning the Cup than anyone in NHL history.

“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Lightning coach John Tortorella said. “With some of the young core that he’s been with the past few years, I think there’s a little bit of sentiment of trying to get it done. But it doesn’t override our locker room. Dave Andreychuk will not let it.

“He knows the reason why we’re here is because you play as a team. When it’s all said and done, that’s a nice story. But it’s not a story within now.”

And while coach Darryl Sutter’s Flames have come out of nowhere, the Lightning’s rise to the top has been even steeper over a two-year period. A victory tonight for Tortorella’s crew would equal the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers in having come the furthest so quickly to capture the Cup.

History favors the Lightning tonight.

Home teams have posted a collective 10-2 mark in championship Game7s. The last four teams to win a Game7 — the 2003 Devils, 2001 Avalanche, 1994 Rangers and 1987 Oilers — won at home.

“It’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be easy,” Iginla said. “This is tough stuff. It’s emotional, and it’s exciting. A lot of us have played Game7s in our minds growing up, and now we get a chance to play it for real.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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