CALGARY - Craig Conroy has stood within reach of the championship trophy at virtually every level he has played but has been foiled in every attempt to hoist it above his head.
As Calgary prepared to play Game 6 on Saturday night, one win from capturing the Stanley Cup, the Flames center, 32, was adamant about how rare these chances could be, and how his team needed to capitalize.
"You'd like to think that this is going to happen year in and year out, but the reality is, not every team does make it back here again," said Conroy, who was traded off a contending St. Louis team and sent to then-woeful Calgary in 2001.
"We talked about it, and we need to have fun, but you have to expect a whole lot out of yourself."
That's a recurring theme for a Flames team that in many ways should be happy just to be this far in the postseason. The Flames were a preseason pick to miss the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year, but finished sixth in the Western Conference before knocking off the top three seeds and advancing to the Stanley Cup final. Calgary has one of the most dynamic players in the league in Jarome Iginla, a solid roster and, in Darryl Sutter, a coach-general manager who has turned a sad franchise into a potential champion.
But the Flames also have holes, and players who are more grinders than gems such as Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
Getting this far can never be taken for granted, and even superstar teams can fall with a bad bounce, a key injury or an unfortunate matchup against a team of the moment like Calgary.
"Obviously, it takes a lot to get here in terms of playing well and getting the bounces," Lightning forward Fredrik Modin said.
"It takes a lot of things to get you here."
The grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs can obscure just how hard it is to reach this stage. The Lightning played its 21st postseason game Thursday night after an 82-game regular season.
It can be easy to forget how many pitfalls were avoided by teams in the Stanley Cup final in keeping a season alive. Since 1995, only Detroit, Dallas and New Jersey have reached the final in consecutive seasons.
In Iginla, Conroy sees the reason why the Flames need to finish the Lightning - immediately.
"Maybe this is his first and only playoff," said Conroy, who had never played for a team that advanced past the first round. "It took seven years for him to get to his first playoff and that's a long time."
Iginla sees the same thing in his counterpart, Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, 40, a 21-year veteran who is playing in his first final. And in Flames center Dave Lowry, 39.
"I know he would like to win it," Iginla said, "but I look at ourselves and we realize we don't have that many opportunities to win. Maybe it's going to be the next year or the next or the year after that. Who knows?
"We look at a guy like Dave Lowry, and he's been in the league 18 or 19 years. He's had a great career, had some playoff runs, been to the finals, but hasn't won it yet."
The time, Conroy said, is now.
"You look around this locker room and see this is something a lot of people have never done," he said. "For me, it's something I've waited on forever."