Cinderfellas ran out of gas

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 2:24 PM ET


 The grind finally caught up to the Calgary Flames.

 Twenty-six games into the 2004 NHL playoffs, the Flames fizzled last night in Tampa Bay.

 It had to happen sooner or later considering they played nearly every other night for two months and considering they admitted to starting their post-season two months earlier at the all-star break.

 It's too bad they tired when it mattered most -- in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

 What a time to stumble.

 Certainly the Flames showed heart last night, especially late in the game trying to force a tie and hopefully overtime.

 But they couldn't keep up the foot speed that drove them through talented opposition in the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks.

 Or, at least it was the high-octane Tampa Bay Lightning out-skating them on just this one occasion.

 Make no mistake about it, having played three less games than the Flames in the post-season meant a lot to the Lightning. The eventual Stanley Cup champions had more left in the tank and it showed in the deciding contest.

 The Bolts had the jump from drop of the puck in Game 7. They out-raced the Flames to all the loose pucks. They were first to a lot of the dump-ins, chase-ins and rebounds.

 It can't be said they had more heart. The winners were the ones with the better jump because of their younger, fresher legs.

 "In the end, they had more legs than we did," agreed Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter. "You could see it early with (Vincent) Lecavalier ..."

 And in most of the other Lightning players, as well.

 Paced by Lecavalier and his amazing moves and Martin St. Louis with his quickness, the Bolts kept the pedal to the metal throughout the evening.

 Even in the dying minutes, they were successful in fending off the desperate Flames, tempering the last-ditch fight with a continued attack.

 The dream could have died on the Flames prior to the final buzzer if not for Miikka Kiprusoff's amazing breakaway save on the shifty Lecavalier.

 But it wasn't simply fewer games played that helped keep the Lightning wheels greased.

 It also helped that the Lightning endured less injuries -- not only in the final series and in the playoffs but during the entire season.

 Their man-games lost were minimal and even Lecavalier's suspected concussion suffered on Ville Nieminen's hit in Game 4 amounted to just dizziness in the end.

 On the other side, the Flames were banged up badly by the end of the amazing run. Robyn Regehr was playing on a bad ankle.

 A bad knee kept Shean Donovan out of the lineup for the final two games.

 "Donovan sprained his MCL. And Robyn, it's his ankle. I'm not sure if it's a break or ligament (damage)," Sutter said.

 "With the injuries we sustained, the longer the series went, the tougher it was going to be."

 No doubt the health of the other players will spill out in the next couple of days. How badly hurt are warriors Stephane Yelle, Andrew Ference and Rhett Warrener?

 Yelle himself likely played the entire playoffs -- blocking shots at will and taking his regular shift -- with a significant lower-body injury.

 It's believed that gutsy Marcus Nilson fought through a concussion to finish out the final series.

 If nothing else, they can hold their heads high as playoff warriors.

 They should get that right.

 However, it's all small consolation to the Flames -- and rightfully so when they had their one chance to grab Lord Stanley's mug.

 It hurts regardless. It hurts more than the injuries. And they'll have plenty of time to find their legs in the off-season.

 Too bad it's too little, too late.


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