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Series going the distance is not unexpected

Published June 6, 2004

CALGARY - Outside, the city lay in wait.

For two days Calgary had prepared for a party, and the pressure was building, and a city was ready to pop like a champagne cork. A few more minutes, a bit more waiting, and the emotions were going to overflow.

Then the Lightning snuck in, stole the moment and spoiled the celebration.

Outside, a country was on the edge.

For a decade, Canada has waited for the Stanley Cup, its Stanley Cup, to return north. This was going to be the night. One more play, one more goal, and the celebration was about to commence. Then Martin St. Louis swooped in, saved the day and turned off the lights.

The team that will not die lives on. The season that will not end has one more heartbeat. The weary, worn Lightning stretched the season once again Saturday, playing more than 80 minutes before dousing the Flames, ruining the revelry and quieting a nation.

Down to its last breath, the Lightning beat back the pressure of the game, the possibility of elimination, the persistence of the Flames and the passion of an entire nation.

This time, it was St. Louis, the assassin, spanking in the winning goal and reviving his team once more. Seven losses, seven comebacks.

And here comes Game 7.

Fasten your seat belts, return your trays to the upright position and prepare for turbulence.

It boils down to the last possible moment. Of course it does. The way the Lightning and Flames have exchanged blows, the way the series has risen and plummeted for each team, how could it not come down to the ultimate game? Anything else would have been a cheat.

For the Lightning, it was the latest effort to find a new spin on surprising those who have followed the team this season. Every time you think you have the measure of this team, every time you think you have seen the limit of its heart and the size of its resiliency, it amazes you again.

There is something about the Lightning that rallies as dirt is kicked in its face. There were times during Saturday's game when the Flames seemed to outnumber the Lightning even when the teams were at even strength. The Lightning looked as if its players were running on fumes, operating more out of will than spark.

Then it had won, impossibly, one more time. Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head at this team and grin. Because it keeps surprising everyone in its sport.

Now it is down to one game. Could anything be more delicious?

There is nothing in the universe quite as pulsating as a Game 7. It is wonderful stuff, a game where all the sword fights are on top of the castle and the scoreboard clock always reads "High Noon." There has never been a sporting event in the Tampa Bay area as large as Monday night's.

Oh, nothing was small about Saturday's game, either. It was a situation to overwhelm a team. All Canada is clamoring for the Cup, and all Calgary is expecting it. The Lightning was one false step from defeat, and it was on the road, and the Flames seemed to be in charge of naming the referees. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were marching the Stanley Cup around the building.

And still, the Lighting won.

Mentally, these guys are Hercules. It is amazing to believe that it was only a year ago they were not mature enough to deal with New Jersey's ferocity. Mentally, they are a decade older than that team. They do not back up. They have no use for silver medals.

"We just have guys who keep rallying, who keep fighting," forward Tim Taylor said. "It's amazing how far we've come."

For two months now, the Lightning has gone on an improbable, incredible ride with harrowing turns and out-of-control spins, where you cannot see around the corner and you cannot catch your breath. It has been wild finishes and heartbreaking defeats and sudden jolts. There have been moments the Lightning has invited you to soar, and moments gravity has taken hold.

Take Saturday. The Flames came from behind twice, and they had momentum, and fans could smell the blood. As for the Lightning, the players looked as if they were missing a gear.

How good a season is this? Consider this: Counting the playoffs, the Lightning has won 61 games this season. Now remember that in the three seasons from 1997-2000, they won 55 games. Combined. The Lightning has won 15 playoff games. It won 17 games in 1997-98. In the entire season.

This is a frenzied, furious ride aboard a runaway horse. There have been times the Lightning has been like someone too deep underwater, swimming frantically toward the surface. Then there have been the moments of breaking the surface, of tasting the air and feeling the sun.

Somewhere along the way, the Tampa Bay area has fallen in love with this team, and with this sport. No sport flows quite like hockey. It is a game that does not pause for strategy, for substitution, for reflection. Everything is ad-lib and full volume. Likewise, no sport relies more on a player's resilience, on his focus, on the fierceness with which he plays. It is a razor's edge of a game, one that will fill your soul or sap your spirit.

Frankly, you haven't seen anything yet. Everything we have seen is all plot exposition.

Everything else has been foreshadowing and character development. Everything else has been a preamble. Everything has been an undercard waiting for the really, really big act.

It comes down to one last contest of wills.

Perhaps you should expect overtime.

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