Darren Eliot
Thursday January 20th, 2005

There are so many fresh storylines in this year's Stanley Cup finals, it is hard to actually focus on the matchup.

Granted, with new blood in the finals in the form of the Lightning and the Flames, new perspectives should dominate -- at least until the series evolves and the action itself becomes the focus. That's when this series will truly take shape.

Both of these teams pressure all over the ice and are relentless in all three zones and in all situations.

The Lightning aggressively forecheck two men, taking away the D-to-D pass -- even deploying the weak-side winger in denying the off side defenseman the puck in the neutral zone. Calgary isn't quite that forward in their forecheck, but when puck possession is in question, they bring bodies with speed.

Not to diminish the fact that the Lightning's Dave Andreychuk is making his first trip to the finals in a 22-year career, or that scoring champion Martin St. Louis broke in with the Flames only to sign with the Lightning as a free agent, but once they drop the puck in this one, those threads will quickly unravel in importance. And once the rhetoric surrounding the "small market" nature of this series and the "finals in Florida" indignation subsides, the action should rightfully draw everyone in.

For this series promises to be compelling for all the right reasons.

First, the style of play of the finalists on both sides of the puck should result in breathtaking pace. Call it the Big Bang Theory, in that both teams prefer to push and pester rather than to yield and counterpunch.

Second, each team possesses some of today's best young talent -- guys ready to take their rightful place as the faces of the NHL. That group includes St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards of the Lightning and Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold of the Flames.

In fact, never has a finals hinged on the heroics of underclassmen as does this one. With the prize being the Stanley Cup and so many on the precipice of greatness, this matchup offers the promise of validation and credibility. As the drama unfolds, that specter of the unknown will heighten the unpredictability from moment to moment, adding to the entertainment.

Already, these two teams have provided their share of magical moments by defying conventional wisdom just to get to this point. The Lightning are more offensively inclined -- with more natural finishers than the Flames -- underscored by its motto that "Safe is Death." To them, the best defense is a good offense.

If the Lightning maintain an offense-first mindset in all three zones, it isn't a stretch to characterize the Flames as thinking defense in all three zones. That constant high-speed harassment is what leads to their offense, and with Iginla, Martin Gelinas and Craig Conroy, they have a top line that can certainly finish.

Defensively, both teams have excellent netminding in Nik Khabibulin for the Bolts and Miikka Kiprusoff for the Flames. Both have turned in strong postseasons marked by moments of brilliance when it mattered most.

The Lightning got Jassen Cullimore back for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, allowing coach John Tortorella to dress seven defensemen for that must-win game. The Flames' Darryl Sutter doesn't have that luxury, as he is still without Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier on the backline. As a result, Sutter mixes and matches his pairings depending on the situation, and the way the blueline personnel have handled the shuffling reflects this group's flexibility and resiliency.

So, study the sidebar stories for now, but once the action begins, sit back and enjoy two teams that have earned the right to be here. Right now they're both enjoying unprecedented attention. Soon, one will emerge as the talk of the hockey world.

With the Lightning having a bit more depth on defense and better balance to the attack, don't be surprised if that buzz ends up emanating from Florida.

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