Lightning is blinking first

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:25 AM ET

 There was never much doubt that as the battle for the Stanley Cup reached its final stages, one of these two teams would falter.

 Would it be the Calgary Flames with their decimated defence corps, their playoff-untested goalie and their thin troop of forwards?

 Or would it be the Tampa Bay Lightning with its risky offensive style, its occasionally erratic goalie and its inexperienced coach?

 It's beginning to look as if it's the latter.

 For three games now, the Calgary Flames have had their way with the Lightning. Had it not been for remarkably erratic shooting in Game 4, not to mention the much-disputed double-penalty call, the Cup already would be theirs.

 But it isn't, and now, the Flames have to win the toughest game of all -- the last one.

 There's no doubt that fortunes can turn in a hurry and a Calgary victory tonight is far from certain. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks appeared to be dead Ducks after five games last year, but won Game 6 handily -- 5-2 to be precise.

 And the Flames may be facing even more adversity. Even though Ville Nieminen will be back from his one-game suspension, two other forwards were hurt in Game 5.

 Shean Donovan is expected to take part despite playing only 12 minutes after Tampa defenceman Jassen Cullimore fell on his right leg, but his blazing speed may be hampered.

 And Chris Clark may be unavailable. He suffered a knee injury trying to make a hit and although he battled through the rest of the game, he may not be able to go tonight.

 Despite all that, the odds have to be in Calgary's favour. The Lightning players, especially the defencemen, have been absorbing a tremendous pounding for 12 games now, ever since the beginning of the Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers, and it's starting to take its toll.

 In Game 5, the Flames were challenging the Tampa defence one-on-one and winning the battles.

 Up front, the Tampa forwards, who also have been taking a beating, were trying to find ways to avoid checks. They've tried to counter the physical game with some hits of their own, but when you don't normally play that way, it becomes a very tiring process.

 And coach John Tortorella sent a message that hurt his own team and boosted the Flames when he scratched Cory Stillman.

 It's the kind of move that might work in United States college hockey -- and Tortorella very much has that kind of mentality --but it doesn't work in the National Hockey League.

 Stillman played 81 games during the season. He was the team's second-leading scorer, behind only Martin St. Louis. He averaged 19 minutes 30 seconds a game.

 You can't just take a player of that calibre and make him a healthy scratch in Game 5 of the event that is the highlight of his life.

 Granted, Stillman has not been particularly effective. Even Tortorella wouldn't scratch him if he were. But it's a coach's job to motivate a vital cog in the team -- as Calgary's Darryl Sutter has done with a number of his players, most recently Jordan Leopold -- not to replace him with the likes of Ben Clymer, who played 10 minutes of a 74-minute game.

 SMELLED OF PANIC

 It was a move that smelled of panic and did not go unnoticed on the Calgary side. Veterans nodded knowingly and said to themselves, "We've got them on the run."

 In the Tampa room, the veterans accepted it, but you have to know that it's not something they would have done. Stillman is one of their number and, to all of them, the Stanley Cup final is the pinnacle of a career. It was a desperation move.

 But right now, on the verge of elimination, Tampa Bay is a desperate team.


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