Lightning coach John Tortorella said the rapid rise of the team the past two seasons, from 69 points in 2001-02 to 106 this season, was a surprise.
"There's no chance we thought this would happen so quick," he said. "We felt we were making quite a few strides as we have gone through the last couple of years. Last year was a very big year for the team, an understanding that they can win. They were fortunate to win a round but found out how hard it is to win in the playoffs."
"I don't think you see it," center Brad Richards said. "You dream about it and you want it. You hope for it."
Richards said he began believing in the team after the 2002 Olympic break, when it went 7-10-5-2.
"And backing it up the year after and not having too many trades and changeovers, we really have stabilized ourselves and had a lot of fun," he said. "You could tell that the core guys, we were really going to do some damage someday."
A long time coming
General manager Jay Feaster, his white dress shirt soaked through with perspiration, did not try to hide the emotion he felt even half an hour after the Lightning clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup final. His voice cracked and tears rolled down his face.
"I remember when I first got here," said Feaster, who joined the franchise in 2001 after eight seasons with AHL Hershey. "I remember struggling to get 10,000 people in the stands. I remember losing 50 games. I remember those years."
As the clock ticked to zero Saturday, Feaster lingered with his wife, Anne, in a suite, gazing at the players hugging on the ice and the thunderous sellout crowd cheering its approval.
"I wanted to be right there and soak this up with 22,000 people," he said. "My wife came into the suite afterward and I said, "Look at this, just like we planned it when we left Hershey.' ... Not quite, not quite."
Khabibulin first Russian goalie
Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will be the first Russian goaltender to play in a Stanley Cup final.
Top of the heap
Wing Ruslan Fedotenko, whose power-play goal gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead in Game 7, is tied with Vinny Lecavalier for the team lead with nine playoff goals. "Really, I am?" Fedotenko said.
Oh, yes. Fedotenko, who had 17 goals in 77 regular-season games, chipped in six against the Flyers, his former team, in the East final, including the winner in a pivotal Game 3 at Philadelphia. Most of his goals were a product of Fedotenko's willingness to stand his ground in rough-and-tumble territory.
"He's been going to the net," said Richards, whose wrist shot from the blue line caught the shaft of Fedotenko's stick and deflected past goaltender Robert Esche with 3:16 left in the first period. "He's not scared. That's a tough place, but you see what happens when you go there. He's got, what, nine goals? That's what happens when you go there."
Flames get to rest
When the Lightning got an eight-day break between its second-round victory over the Canadiens and the start of the third round with the Flyers, players said they were able to heal the bumps and bruises that come with playoff hockey.
The Flames have that luxury with five days between clinching the West and the Cup final.
"We're good," Calgary captain Jarome Iginla said. "We're enjoying this time off and using it to our benefit. We're getting charged up and we're going to be ready for the start of the series."
"It's hard to practice well when you play all the time," goalie Miikka Kiprusoff said. "Now that we have a couple of days, we'll be able to have some good practices. Mentally, it's good to relax, to not think about games that much."
Center Craig Conroy enjoyed the down time.
"Everything is hockey, hockey, hockey," he said. "So when you have (five) days, it's great. Your body heals up and you can just refocus. You relax because you're going to put your heart and soul into the next series."
A sigh of relief
Not enough was probably made Saturday of Fredrik Modin's play with about five seconds left. The Lightning left wing went hard to the right wing boards to battle and clear the puck from the Lightning zone and ensure the 2-1 victory.
"It might have been the biggest play of the game," defenseman Brad Lukowich said. "When he got it over the blue line, that was it."
"I was just trying to do everything to get it out," Modin said.
Asked how he felt when the puck went into the neutral zone, Modin took an exaggerated deep breath and said, "Whew."
Get a look at the Stanley Cup
TODAY: Roland Park Middle School, 1510 N Manhattan Ave., Tampa, 11:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Madison Middle School, 4444 Bay Vista Ave., Tampa, 1-2 p.m.
TUESDAY: Busch Gardens, at the corner of Busch Boulevard and 40th Street, Tampa, 4-6 p.m.
WEDNESDAY: BayWalk, 125 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, noon-2 p.m.
"I think what was the most important thing was not going through the back door. I think they knocked down the front door and just charged." - Tortorella on beating the Flyers in Game 7.