TAMPA - Every now and then, you figure you've seen just about everything.
Think of how you shook your head when Tampa Bay went four consecutive seasons, from 1997-98 to 2000-01, with at least 50 losses. Think of how you looked away during 1997-98 when the team had two 16-game winless streaks.
Now think of this: With its 2-1 victory Saturday night over the Flyers in Game 7 of the East final, in front of a crowd of 22,117, the largest ever at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Lightning, the Lightning, is going to face the Flames for the Stanley Cup.
Game 1 is Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"This," center Tim Taylor said, "is the best feeling I've had in a long time."
Not only because Tampa Bay won the series and its first conference title four games to three. But because of the circumstances that were supposed to expose the Lightning as an inexperienced, shaky playoff newcomer.
The Lightning was irreparably damaged, many assumed, after a distressing overtime loss in Game 6 in which it led with less than two minutes remaining. But the team regrouped and, in the process, showed the resiliency that marked much of its season.
The team also made sure the 2-1 lead it had entering the third period was secure and outshot the Flyers 8-7. That after a third period in Game 6 in which it was on its heels, outshot 15-6 and saw its one-goal lead disappear with 1:49 left.
"For them to answer, it was a mental toughness," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It was something our guys handled very well. Our team has matured. For them to win the game is a great sign for this hockey club."
"It shows that we were together," center Vinny Lecavalier said. "It could have been a game we lost. We started out a little flat-footed, but then we went after them."
Ruslan Fedotenko scored his ninth goal on the power play in the first period. Fredrik Modin scored his seventh in the second for a 2-0 lead. Brad Richards had two assists, and Nikolai Khabibulin made 22 saves, including one on Keith Primeau's breakaway with 6:56 left in the second period that preserved the one-goal lead.
The only blip was Kim Johnsson's goal with 9:44 remaining in the second that got past Khabibulin after deflecting in front off the stick of Lightning defenseman Nolan Pratt.
"The disappointment is immense," Flyers wing Jeremy Roenick said. "It's to the point you feel like you're going to throw up. You are sick to your stomach."
"It's all empty," Johnsson said. "It's the worst feeling in the world. It's like you can't feel anything."
The Lightning was feeling it, again, on the power play.
Fedotenko's goal with 3:14 left in the first period - a double deflection off his shaft after Martin St. Louis tipped Richards' point shot - was Tampa Bay's ninth power-play goal of the series and fifth in its previous six chances. It also helped calm Tampa Bay as did two previous penalty kills that left Philadelphia 1-for-26 in the series with the extra man.
"They came at us pretty hard, and the two penalty kills, I think, were the turning point," Richards said. "Then we get a power play and scored right away. It really took the nerves out and got us going."
Modin made a huge play along the boards to knock the puck out of the zone when the Flyers were pushing in the final minute.
And then there was captain Dave Andreychuk, who at 40 and in his 22nd season finally made it to a Cup final.
"You dream about this day happening," he said. "You don't know how you're going to feel. I don't really feel relief. I feel excitement more than anything else. Everybody in our locker room should be pretty proud of the situation we're in."
"We're very happy where we are," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "It's a great accomplishment, but we're not content."
But they are light years away from the team that won just once in a 29-game stretch in 1999-2000, and the one that won just twice in a 25-game stretch in 2000-01.
"This answers the question that the Tampa Bay Lightning can play through a grind," Tortorella said.