- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay was an NHL laughingstock just three years ago. Last night, the joke was on the rest of the league as the Lightning got two goals from Ruslan Fedotenko to beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 in Game7 to win their first Stanley Cup.

“We’re winners; we’re going to walk together forever,” said Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, this season’s scoring champion, of having their names engraved on the Cup.

“I don’t know if you go back three years if anybody thought we could win the Cup,” said goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the first major acquisition after John Tortorella became Tampa Bay’s coach in January 2001. “But we took it step by step. The most important thing is that the core of players stayed the same … and matured.”

Among those players was Tampa Bay center Brad Richards, who scored 12 postseason goals after not producing any in 11 games last spring, and who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.

“You always want to play better,” Richards said. “It’s unbelievable. I can’t really explain it.”

Richards, 24, also led all postseason scorers with 26 points, the last of which set up the first goal by Fedotenko, who needed six stitches above his eye shortly beforehand. Fedotenko’s 12th goal of the playoffs made it 2-0 at 14:38 of the second period.

Calgary’s Craig Conroy ripped a shot into the top right corner of the net to cut the deficit in half at 9:21 of the third period on an assist by Jordan Leopold. The power play goal was a product of a questionable penalty on Nolan Pratt for interfering with Oleg Saprykin when it appeared that the Flames’ left wing had caused the collision.

Given new life, the Flames finally turned it on, but Khabibulin preserved the lead by sliding to the left post to rob Leopold on a rebound of Marcus Nilson’s shot with 4:58 left. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff responded by stoning Vincent Lecavalier on a rush 1:52 later to keep the Flames within 2-1. The officials surprisingly called penalties on each team in the final 61 seconds.

Khabibulin joined Dominik Hasek (Detroit, 2002) as the only European title-winning goalies and center Dave Andreychuk ended his record 22-year, 1,759-game quest for the Cup as Tampa Bay became the 11th of 13 home teams to win Game7.

“Obviously this is the pinnacle,” said Andreychuk, who’s expected to retire. “The things that are going through your mind, the years that you got knocked out in the first round, the years that you didn’t make the playoffs, all the players that you have played with. We battled all year to get home ice advantage and it happens that we win the Cup in a seventh game in our own building.”

Considering the team that had scored first had won every finals game and Tampa Bay entered the game 13-2 in the playoffs when scoring first, the Lightning appeared well on their way to making Tortorella only the second American Cup-winning coach along with the late Bob Johnson when Fedotenko scored at 13:31 of the first period. Tampa Bay became just the sixth team to rebound from a 3-2 deficit in the finals to win the Cup.

“To do it in three years, who’s kidding who,” said Tortorella, who inherited a team that had averaged just 48 points the previous three seasons.

Calgary, which could have captured the title by taking Game 6 at home after not even making the playoffs the previous seven seasons, fell just short of becoming the first Canadian team to win the Cup in 11 years by losing its third 1-goal game in the past four.

“In the end, we ran out of gas,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. “They had more legs than we did. You could sense it early [last night]. But we got beat by a great team.”

Tampa Bay had scored six of its 11 goals in the first six games on the power play and the extra skater made a difference again in the first period. After neither team put a shot on net in the first seven minutes, when Saprykin went off for tripping Chris Dingman at 11:59, the Lightning’s power play clicked.

Richards fired a shot which Kiprusoff kicked out right to Fedotenko who beat defenseman Robyn Regehr (playing with a badly injured ankle) and then Kiprusoff stick side. Ironically, it was Regeher who had hurled Fedotenko into the boards late in Game3, knocking the Ukranian right wing out of Game 4 with a facial injury. Dan Boyle then almost made it 2-0, but the defenseman’s shot rattled off the post.

Calgary was obviously in trouble when its best scoring chance of the period came off the stick of enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa. The Flames started the second period with 1:42 left on their first power play thanks to Jassen Cullimore’s interference with Chris Clark but didn’t test Khabibulin once.

The Lightning were terrific at blocking shots before they got through to the Russian netminder. Tampa Bay’s power play went without a shot for the second time in three tries early in the period, but after Kiprusoff made good stops on Lecavalier and St. Louis from close range, Lecavalier fought through traffic to pass back to the open Fedotenko, who one-timed the puck off the goalie’s left arm and into the net.

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