TAMPA, Fla. — The Calgary Flames, about the last team anybody picked to win the Stanley Cup, turned a first-shot goal and second effort from Jarome Iginla into yet another postseason surprise. The Flames shook off a five-day layoff and any jitters about playing for hockey’s biggest prize, scoring on their first shot in the finals since 1989 and riding a superb two-way game by Iginla to a 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Tuesday night.
Martin Gelinas, who usually scores the final goal of a series, got the first one this time and Iginla, stamping himself as hockey’s best player in the kind of playoffs usually enjoyed only by superstars, scored short-handed to make it 2-0 in the second.
“That short-handed goal was the difference for us,” coach Darryl Sutter said. “That was a huge goal, a second-effort goal. He had everything going.”
Iginla so disrupted what had been a dominating Tampa Bay power play that the Lightning began playing tentatively until Martin St. Louis scored early in the third period, with Calgary already up by three goals.
“A few of our guys were jittery at the start,” Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella said. “We got a little frustrated at times.”
The Flames, also getting a goal from Stephane Yelle only 2:47 after Iginla scored in the second, improved to a remarkable 9-2 on the road with five consecutive victories — including all three games at San Jose in the Western Conference finals.
“On the road, it seems like we’re closer and our focus is really good,” Yelle said.
Game 2 is in Tampa on Thursday night.
“It is a must-win for us,” Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said. “We don’t want to go to Calgary down 2-0. It wouldn’t be the end of the world — but we probably could see it.”
Iginla was a game-long force on the penalty kill as the Flames killed off all but one of Tampa Bay’s five power plays. The Lightning had scored on seven of their previous 14 power plays and has at least one man-advantage goal in seven straight games.
That hesitancy carried over to even strength as the Lightning created few odd-man rushes and never developed the effective transition game they had in the first three rounds. It didn’t help that Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, a third-teamer in San Jose earlier this season, was sharp and in control from the start, or exactly what Nikolai Khabibulin wasn’t. Kiprusoff had 23 saves.
Calgary, the first Canadian team to play for the Cup in 10 years, started the finals the same way they ended the San Jose series: with key goals by Gelinas and Iginla and a determined defensive effort in which Iginla was just as good without the puck as he was with it.
The Flames got a huge and potential momentum-swinging break on their very first shot, with 3:02 gone, when Craig Conroy’s slap shot from the high slot deflected off Andreychuk’s shoulder and again off Gelinas, causing it to glance off Khabibulin’s right leg and trickle across the goal line.
Gelinas became known as “The Eliminator” for scoring the decisive goal in each of Calgary’s first three playoff series victories, only to start this series with his seventh of the playoffs.
That the Flames quickly seized control was no surprise; they own a 10-4 scoring advantage in the first period and are 11-1 when they score first. They haven’t allowed a first-period goal in an NHL-record nine consecutive playoff games, helping them start each of the their last three playoff series with road victories, at Detroit, San Jose and Tampa Bay.
“We have to be aware they’re not looking for a split,” Andreychuk said. “Our desperation level has to get back to where it was.”
And for a player named Iginla, the first black captain of an NHL team and the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Award as the playoffs MVP.
It was Iginla’s playoff-leading 10th goal that really disheartened the Lightning and the 21,674 fans jammed into the arena formerly known as the Ice Palace. He picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and fed it up ice to himself, initially missing on a wrist shot only to scoop up the loose puck along the goal line and steer it past Khabibulin at 15:21 of the second.
“It was great to see it go in,” Iginla said. “It bounced over (Fredrik) Modin’s stick, and I knew I was going to have a breakaway. I had a lot of time to think about it and Nikolai Khabibulin made a great glove save and I stopped to watch it. I was thrilled I was going to have another chance, because you usually don’t get too many.”
The Lightning will get one in Game 2 and, Brad Richards said, “We’ve got to have that killer instinct. We’ve got to find a way to get that done early.”
Khabibulin’s 1.65 goals-against average coming in was the best of the playoffs, but the goals by Gelinas and Yelle were the kind of soft scores that led Tortorella to bench him for a pivotal Game 5 in 2003 Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia.
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