Bolts thrill with skill

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:33 PM ET


  The NHL playoffs are proof the Tampa Bay Lightning can strike twice.

Almost three times a game, in fact.

The Eastern Conference champions can strike quickly and without warning, with enough offence to be considered among the league's most dangerous teams in the opposition's end.

Good thing the Calgary Flames counter with one of the league's top defensive gameplans as the two clubs are set to square off in the 2004 Stanley Cup final.

"They're a top offensive team," said Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter with regards to the Lightning's 47 post-season goals for a league-best average of 2.94 per game. "It tells you what they're capable of and tells you what their top end is like."

At the very top is Martin St. Louis, the league's scoring champion in the regular season with 94 points. Cory Stillman and Brad Richards, with 80 and 79 respectively, also finished in the top 10. And Vincent Lecavalier followed with 66 points.

Team-wise, only the Ottawa Senators (262) and Detroit Red Wings (255) scored more goals than the Lightning (245) during the 82-game regular season.

"We've had challenges throughout the playoffs and this is another good challenge," said Flames defenceman Andrew Ference. "It's another No. 1 team. It's another fantastic offence. So it's a big job for the entire team and not just us six defenceman."

But it's nothing the Flames can't handle.

They've seen similar speed before in both the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks series.

And the Lightning offers much the same offensive threat as the Red Wings -- only without the aging legs.

"They have a lot more youth," said Flames forward Chris Clark, comparing the Lightning to the Red Wings. "Most of the guys on their team haven't been through the battle of the playoffs before. I think they'll be a little bit more hungry than Detroit but I think the talent level is right up there.

"But we have a real solid defence and our goalie (Miikka Kiprusoff) is awesome. Our forwards coming back have done a good job as well on the defensive side."

Truth is, the Flames' ability to turn back the Lightning attack is likely to be the difference in deciding this year's champion.

That and the ability of the Lightning to handle the aggressive Flames forecheck.

"It's always been what we do -- get in on their D, get in there first and battle along the boards," Clark said. "We're just going to try and continue that.

"We'd like to make it a physical series -- that's the way we play. We'll see if we can drag them into our battle."

Beyond that, the Flames know there's not much separating them from the Lightning.

"They've got great goaltending (with Nikolai Khabibulin) and we've got great goaltending," said captain Jarome Iginla. "That's why both teams are there.

"They're a fast group. We think we're a fast group. They're a very skilled group -- a very high-scoring group. And we like to play very physical.

"So it should make for a good series. It's going to be some fast, exciting hockey and it should be fun to watch."

- - -

STANLEY CUP FINAL

GAME 1 TOMORROW IN TAMPA, 6 P.M. (CBC)


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