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Monday, May 24, 2004
Updated: May 25, 10:01 AM ET
Exciting and fun ... and it's the Cup finals

By Jim Kelley
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Not being prone to grand illusions, big-picture issues or the multilayered story lines journalists tend to fixate on, we leave it to Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter to put this year's Stanley Cup finals in perspective.

"There's been so much made of, you know, because we have had the days off, there's been a lot made about the small markets, and good for hockey, a Canadian team and all that, but you know what it is, what nobody has talked about, is that the reason these teams have had some success is that they are fun teams, they are exciting teams," Sutter said.

"That's what will make these finals a good series -- because it will be an exciting series."

It doesn't get any simpler than that. And it's pretty darn close to the truth, as well.

The upcoming Stanley Cup finals between the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning isn't about Canada vs. the United States. It's not about a small-market team in hockey's heartland vs. a small-market team so far removed from a traditional hockey environment that people still ask why the puck doesn't glow anymore.

It's also not about the league office wringing its corporate hands about television ratings. And it's certainly not about the success of low-budget teams and the impact of their success on the collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

One might even argue that it's not even about Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk ending the longest Stanley Cup finals appearance drought in league history (though that is a compelling story line that will be addressed down the road).

What this series is about is two very good hockey teams that play an aggressive and entertaining style. It's about two teams that produce goals, excitement, drama and truly great feats of athletic achievement on ice.

They may be newbies to this level of competition, but if you remember how good hockey used to be before the advent of monster-sized goaltenders, trapping defensive schemes and the terrifying decline in both scoring and playmaking, then you've got a surprise coming: These guys play to win.

It's not something you always see in a league that has been shaped by coaches who like to play not to lose. There is a difference.

"Actually we're very similar," said Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella. "Both teams attack. Both teams like to chase things down. Both play as a team and need big plays to win, but both have to be grounded in a team concept to be successful."

Better yet, this isn't the trapping New Jersey Devils against the trapping Anaheim Mighty Ducks and we aren't all going to be bored to tears.

Tampa wins by going at opponents, hard. It has three good scoring lines, a handful of star or star-in-the-making players, an aggressive forechecking scheme and an outstanding goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin, who is as good as -- if not better than -- any netminder in the game today.

The Lightning also play very good defense and can win one-goal games when called upon, but the basis of their game is to be aggressive. Their coach, Tortorella, encourages it. Their best forwards -- Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Fredrik Modin -- are successful at it.

The Lightning finished first in the Southeast Division, first in the Eastern Conference and were just a shade off the pace for the best record overall. They are here because they had 46 wins in the regular season and beat all comers in the Eastern Conference playoffs, including the big, tough and savvy Philadelphia Flyers, who pushed them to the limit before losing in seven exciting and well-played games.

The Flames may not be quite as blessed offensively, but they do have their share of game breakers, led by Jarome Iginla who, like St. Louis, is a candidate for league MVP. They have a goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff, who may well be Khabibulin's equal, a balanced four-line attack, a big, physical defense and a work ethic that almost defies description.

The Flames also play smart. Though Sutter is generally thought of as a "work harder" coach, his game plan is well thought out, his tactics are cerebral and his team's execution is as poised as it is relentless.

The Flames finished sixth in the Western Conference pecking order, but they never stopped improving. Their efforts and skill came together at just the right time. They've beaten supposedly better teams in the playoffs -- the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings -- all division leaders. They accomplished that feat not only with hard work and stellar goaltending but also because they were willing to pay a physical price, one that even the Presidents' Trophy-winning Red Wings couldn't or wouldn't match. Calgary players are quick and fast. They send the puck in deep, and they go get it. They exploit defensemen and goaltenders who can't handle the pressure, and woe be to anyone who gets in their way.

Like the Lightning, they like to play the game in the other team's end of the rink, they have strong special teams (though their power play isn't nearly as good as Tampa Bay's), they deliver punishing hits and they never, ever quit.

What's not to like about that?

There are a great many people, especially in the United States, who are quick to write off hockey. They classify it as a "who cares" sport full of thugs, goons, talentless players, overbearing coaches, mechanically dominant goaltenders and too much labor strife. Oh, and it's too difficult to follow the puck on TV.

There have been seasons and even Cup finals when that was more than partially true.

Yet hockey can be a game of skill, grace, speed, excitement and physical intensity. There are times when it produces stunning plays and breathtaking drama, and, be it evolution or just blind luck, the hockey gods have found reason to bring together two teams who are blessed with those attributes and put them in a championship series.

Only one will emerge as a champion, but Sutter had it right -- it will be an exciting series.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.