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Saturday, May 29, 2004
Defense will win this championship too

By EJ Hradek
ESPN The Magazine

CALGARY, Alberta -- Before this Stanley Cup finals between the Lightning and the Flames began, we thought we'd witness some 1980s-style offensive hockey.

Well, forget that.

In Saturday's Game 3, we watched another tight-checking defensive battle that resulted in 3-0 win for the Flames, who took a 2-1 series lead.

"Both of these teams play good team defense," said Bolts defenseman Dan Boyle. "We get more recognition for our offense, but we play good defense too. Defense wins in the playoffs. I thought that was the case tonight."

Boyle's wise old teammate, Dave Andreychuk, was quick to agree.

"Defense definitely wins championships," said Andreychuk, who logged more than 20 minutes of ice time in Game 3. "We've been stressing that. You can't play in the offensive zone until you do your job in the defensive end."

In the first half of Game 3, the clubs were locked in a Devils-Wild style defensive showdown. There were just seven shots in the first period -- none in the final seven minutes of the opening stanza. Of those, the Flames had just two shots.

"We have to play a defensive game," said Flames center Craig Conroy. "We know they have a very skilled team, so we know we can't give them any room."

Conroy, who was nominated for the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward while with the St. Louis Blues in 2000, believes there is no secret to postseason success.

"In the playoffs, it's a low scoring game," Conroy said, "so we want to keep it simple. They still say that defense wins championships. Sometimes, in different sports, you see offensive teams win it all. It can happen, but it's very difficult."

Martin Gelinas, playing in his fourth Stanley Cup finals (with four different teams), pulled out an age-old cliché when describing the first three games of this series.

"It's been a game of inches," Gelinas said. "They've been some good, hard defensive games. We have to play that type of game."

The defense-first attitude has produced some tentative play from both teams.

"In the first period, I didn't think anyone wanted to take control," said Lightning center Brad Richards. "We had some power-play chances and we didn't take advantage. Other than that, I thought both teams were laying back a little bit. I know we don't want to play like that."

The Flames, though, don't seem to mind.

"We want to be able to win every game 1-0," said Conroy. "That's our team philosophy. That's our game, and that's the way you win in the playoffs."

Turning point
Several players polled felt the game swung when Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff stopped Richards on a short-handed, semi-breakaway a little more than midway through the second period. Less than a minute later, Chris Simon scored a power-play goal to give the Flames a 1-0 lead.

"After he stopped me on that chance, I didn't think anything good was going to come out of it," said Richards, who watched his team fall to 30-28-6-6 in games when he doesn't score a goal.

Boyle took Richards' comment a step further: "Some nights, when you don't score on those kind of chances, you start to think it's not going to be your night. I mean, you don't give up -- we never give up -- but you just start to wonder."

Bolts coach John Tortorella was a bit more analytical.

"I though the turnaround of the game was when we win an offensive zone faceoff at even strength and we turn it over," Tortorella explained. "We end up taking a penalty, and they end up scoring on that power play. I thought that penalty was the turning point."

A Saturday drive
Although he didn't get a point on the play, Flames forward Chuck Kobasew made an excellent play on the Flames' second goal at the 17:09 mark of the second period.

Flames winger Shean Donovan corralled an errant pass by Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier at the Calgary blue line. Donovan took off down the left wing side of center ice, while Kobasew jumped up through the middle to make it a two-on-one against Tampa Bay defenseman Darryl Sydor. As Donovan crossed the blue line, Kobasew fought off a weak backcheck from a gassed Martin St. Louis and drove to the far post. By doing so, he forced Sydor to respect the pass, giving Donovan more room to get a good look at the net. With the extra second, Donovan zeroed in on the area over Khabibulin's glove. The journeyman winger made no mistake, rifling a wrist shot just under the crossbar.

"If he doesn't go hard to the net, it's a totally different play," Donovan said. "It would have been an easier play for the defenseman to attack me and an easier read for the goalie."

On the scoresheet, Donovan's goal was unassisted, but without Kobasew's hustle, it might not have happened.

First-strike capability
First goal wins ... again.

The team scoring the first goal has won each of the first three games of this series. Overall, the team netting the first goal has won 66 of 85 games during this postseason. The Flames improved to 12-1 when scoring first.

"The first goal has been important," said Lightning assistant coach Craig Ramsay. "It's hard to score. The game definitely changes after the first one. We gave up that first goal, then we opened up a bit and they took advantage."

The Lightning were kicking themselves for not grabbing the lead.

"We had some chances," said Tampa Bay's Fredrik Modin. "I had a good chance in the second period, but I was falling down when I got the pass from Cory Sarich. I wanted to pass the puck to [Cory] Stillman, but I couldn't pass it when I was falling. By the time, I got my feet under me, Stillman was covered, so I just took a shot. He [Kiprusoff] got a shoulder on it and I missed the chance."

Howe good
Calgary captain Jarome Iginla recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick in Game 3, with a goal, an assist and a fighting major. His first-period tangle with Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier marked the first time since 1972 that two star players engaged in a fight during the Stanley Cup final. That year, the Bruins' Ken Hodge and the Rangers' Vic Hatfield squared off.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.