Flyers and three newcomers fill conference finals field
When the Philadelphia Flyers last won the Stanley Cup in 1975, there were 18 NHL teams in the league and none in Tampa, Fla., San Jose, Calif., or Calgary, Alberta.
Now, those three newcomers are looking to make Philadelphia's drought another year longer.
The Flyers knocked out the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, by winning Game 6 in overtime, and will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
Jeremy Roenick's game-winning goal popped the water bottle off the top of the net less than an hour before the San Jose Sharks reached their first conference finals appearance by eliminating Colorado.
That set up a matchup with the Calgary Flames, who haven't been this far since they won it all in 1989.
Toronto, an Original Six club that hasn't lifted the Cup since 1967, and Colorado, which has two titles in nine seasons since leaving Quebec, are out. The Lightning are making their conference finals debut and have the best record of the remaining teams.
And they have some recent history behind them. A year ago, they won their first playoff series in their 11th NHL season before falling in five games to eventual champion New Jersey.
"We don't have a clue what it's about yet," Lightning coach John Tortorella said.
After splitting two home games in the first round against the New York Islanders, the Lightning won the final three games to take that series in five. Then they overwhelmed the Montreal Canadiens, winning four straight against the 23-time Stanley Cup champions.
That series wrapped up last Thursday, and the Lightning will have had eight days off before opening at home against the Flyers on Saturday.
"We're climbing the ladder to respectability within the league," Tortorella said. "I still think most of the teams in our conference want to play us in the playoffs because they're not sure if we're battle-tested, and rightfully so."
The Lightning won all four meetings this season from the Flyers.
"I don't really care who we play," Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I know how good Tampa is, and I know what their record is against us, but we are a group that has gone through a lot and we're not going to get pushed out easily against anybody.
"We feel we've played better as the series moved on. To me, that's the sign we're a hardened group."
The Flyers have reached the conference finals 14 times in the expansion era, tying Montreal for the most appearances.
Calgary has some history to fall back on. The Flames lost in the semifinals in 1981, their first season after relocating from Atlanta, and reached the finals in 1986 -- three years before their only championship.
Since that title, they hadn't won a playoff series until beating third-seeded Vancouver in this year's first round. Following that with a stunning six-game victory over Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit provided a refreshing change for a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1996.
Their opponent, the Sharks, seemed poised to reach this level a year ago. But a run of five straight seasons with an improved record ended with a major thud when San Jose finished 14th in the 15-team Western Conference.
The Sharks' 73 points were 26 fewer than the season before when they were the Pacific Division champs and landed them two behind the hapless Flames. That all changed this year when they racked up 104 points, the third most in the NHL.
"We're both young teams, we both have great leadership, both have great goaltending, we're both very disciplined," Flames coach Darryl Sutter told The Canadian Press. "They didn't win their division by accident that's for sure."
San Jose won six of its final seven games, wiped out St. Louis in five games, and then stormed to a 3-0 lead over Colorado before closing out a six-game victory Tuesday.
"It's just great for the people who live here and love the Sharks," defenseman Mike Rathje said. "We've had some successes, but we've never been really close to the Stanley Cup. Hopefully, this is the year we change all that."
The Sharks have stayed very much under the radar, and that looks likely to continue through their series against the Flames.
ABC will provide network television coverage in the conference finals, setting aside the next two Saturdays for afternoon broadcasts. The Lightning and Flyers will be shown on both, while the Flames and Sharks will be left mostly for late-night viewers on ESPN.
The cable network has seen a rise in the ratings thus far despite a low-scoring postseason. Through Monday, when Calgary eliminated Detroit with its second straight 1-0 victory, ESPN has averaged 581,000 households, 12 percent more than last year, and a 0.7 rating -- a 17 increase over 2003.
ESPN2 reports a viewer increase of 26 percent.