TAMPA, FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. - Who's laughing now?
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the laughingstock of the NHL up until three years ago, a team four years removed from back-to-back 19-win seasons, a team the Florida Panthers used to torment for kicks, will have its name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
With a nail-biting 2-1 victory last night over the Calgary Flames in Game 7, the Lightning, the Eastern Conference's best team throughout the regular season, became the first 1990s expansion team to party with Lord Stanley.
"This is the ultimate dream for a player," said Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis, the likely regular-season Most Valuable Player. "I'm really proud of our team. We're going to walk together forever. We're winners. Nothing can describe how it feels to be the last team standing."
Having not won consecutive games since April 29 and May 8, the Lightning could not have picked a better time to snap out of its record 13 straight games of alternating wins and losses. The Lightning, after winning Game 6 on Saturday in Calgary, became the sixth team since 1939 to rally from a 3-2 series deficit in the Finals.
Ruslan Fedotenko, who missed Game 4 after being driven headfirst into the boards in Game 3, scored both Lightning goals, the second after he took six stitches above the eye in the first period. Nikolai Khabibulin made only 16 saves but had to survive a tense final 10 minutes after allowing Craig Conroy's long floater on a power play over his left shoulder and into the net.
"This is unbelievable," Khabibulin said. "Three years ago, I don't know too many people if anybody thought the Tampa Bay Lightning could win the Stanley Cup."
Coach John Tortorella said: "I still can't figure out how it happened so quickly for us - to do it in three years, to get where we're at today. It's the men in the room. The players do it."
Center Brad Richards had an assist to finish with a league-high 26 points. The young Lightning star, who set an NHL record this postseason with seven game-winning goals, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP.
"It's cliche, but we wanted to win the Cup," Richards said. "This was a bonus but an unbelievable honor."
It was also a dream come true for 40-year-old Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, credited for changing the culture in Tampa Bay's unstable dressing room. Andreychuk, playing in his 1,759th game, has no longer played the most games in NHL history without winning a Stanley Cup.
"I had this moment in my head lots of times and it finally happened," he said. "I've dreamed about this day for a long time."
Added defenseman Darryl Sydor: "Everybody was just hoping so much. If we were doing it for anybody, it was him."
The Flames, who were trying to beat their fourth straight division champ and become only the second team since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1967-68 to win the Stanley Cup without having home-ice advantage, failed in their bid to win an 11th road game.
When looking back, their poor 5-7 home record - the seven losses being a record - haunted them during an improbable run.
While Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle, an ex-Panther, won his first Stanley Cup, former Panthers Dave Lowry, Rhett Warrener and Marcus Nilson were denied their first Stanley Cups. Lowry was playing in his 1,195th game, Warrener in his third Finals.
"It's a tough one to have to live with," Lowry said. "Obviously, it's an empty feeling. It hurts to lose because you battled a lot of adversity through the playoffs."
Both teams looked nervous to start and were definitely squeezing the sticks too tight. But the Lightning jumped out to an ever-important 1-0 lead when Fedotenko scored his first of two goals on a power play with 6:29 left in the period. Richards, stationed at the right point, wristed a shot on net through traffic that Miikka Kiprusoff kicked out with his right pad.
Fedotenko escaped defenseman Robyn Regehr, who was playing with a foot injury, found the rebound and ripped it by Kiprusoff for the score.
Calgary wasn't able to get anything going offensively as the Lightning did a marvelous job collapsing down low to protect Khabibulin. The Flames were never able to find that second or third gear that became their benchmark during what was an improbable yet impressive postseason run.
"In the end, we just ran out of gas," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said. "We tried to summon all we could in terms of energy. They had more legs than we did. You could see that easily. Hey, we got beat by a great team."
It cost them in the second period when the Lightning extended the lead to 2-0. Working the puck in the corner to the right of Kiprusoff, Vincent Lecavalier danced around Steve Montador before taking Nilson and Toni Lydman out of the play to set up Fedotenko for his 12th goal.
"He gave me a great pass. I just buried it," Fedotenko said.
NOTES: Lightning owner Bill Davidson now can pull off a previously unseen single-season sweep of the NBA and NHL titles. His Detroit Pistons lead the Lakers 1-0 in the NBA Finals. ... The Flames were trying to become the first Stanley Cup champion with a losing home record (5-7). ... The 1995 Devils remain the only team to win the Cup without having home-ice advantage in any round. Sixth-seeded Calgary could have become the second. The Flames also failed to become the first team to eliminate four division champions in a playoff year ... No Stanley Cup Finals Game 7 has gone to overtime since 1954.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Long wait is over
Dave Andreychuk, who played in his 1,759th NHL game last night, removed himself from the list of most games without winning a Stanley Cup.
1,593 Dale Hunter
1,580 Phil Housley
1,554 Mike Gartner
1,516 Norm Ullman
1,423 x-Scott Mellanby