TAMPA, Fla. Jarome Iginla is approaching one of those career-making moments when a player's talent and tenacity turns an average team into a champion, when a star transforms himself into a superstar.
Largely because of Iginla's exceptional play, the Calgary Flames a team of seemingly modest skills and ambitions are three victories away from winning the Stanley Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Game 2 Thursday night.
''This is the time of my life, it really is,'' Iginla said Wednesday.
Three more games like Calgary's 4-1 victory in Game 1 Tuesday and it certainly will be.
Iginla's line created the first two goals, disrupted a Lightning power play that has scored on seven of its previous 14 chances and again showed why he has been the most influential player in these playoffs. As a result, the Lightning trail a playoff series for the first time this spring.
''But we're very determined,'' Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier said. ''We know Calgary's a hardworking team and they played very well, but we have a lot of character. We're not questioning ourselves. We know what we can do and, if we do it, we have a good chance of winning (Game 2).''
Still, Iginla's impact can't be measured merely by statistics his playoffs-leading 11 goals and his seven assists. Or by his stature in the dressing room of a sixth-seeded team that had sat out seven consecutive postseasons until this one, but is trying to become the first team to beat four division champions (Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose, Tampa Bay) in a single playoffs.
Martin Gelinas, Iginla's linemate who also scored in Game 1, equates Iginla's importance to that of the player long considered the sport's premier captain, Mark Messier.
''All around, he's probably the best leader I've played with,'' Gelinas said.
Defenseman Andrew Ference said Iginla increasingly reminds him of Penguins owner-captain Mario Lemieux, with whom Ference played last season.
''They both hate to lose equally as much, and I think all superstars have that trait, whether it's Jarome and his video games or Mario playing cards,'' Ference said. ''On the ice, everywhere in life, they want to succeed. They hate defeat.''
Coincidentally, the Penguins also missed the playoffs the season before Lemieux stamped himself as a winner, not just an exceptional scorer, by leading Pittsburgh to the Cup in 1991. Iginla has been similar in these playoffs to Lemieux in those, scoring seven goals as the Flames have gone 9-2 on the road with five consecutive victories. The Gelinas-Craig Conroy-Iginla line has accounted for 23 of Calgary's 50 goals.
Iginla, the first black team captain in NHL history, was an established star back home long before this season; his two goals in Canada's gold medal-clinching victory over the United States in the 2002 Olympics might merit his own stamp or coin someday. He shared the NHL goal-scoring title this season with 41 goals and had a 52-goal season in 2001-02.
But his standout postseason performance has elevated his visibility in the United States, where he ordinarily gets limited exposure in the major media markets due to the Flames' infrequent trips East.
Coach Darryl Sutter long ago accepted Iginla's status as an elite-level talent, so he easily rattled off a well-rehearsed litany of Iginla's traits when asked why he is special.
''He's a big power guy, he's an old school player, plays a lot of minutes, plays the power play, plays penalty killing, plays against big-skill guys, plays against skilled players, plays the last minute of a period, plays the first minute of a period,'' Sutter said.
Iginla calls such praise ''flattering ... a nice compliment, hard to believe.'' But he insists his inner drive and intensity he's among handful of skilled players who will drop the gloves to fight are motivated more by winning than any desire to be hockey's best player.
''To actually turn the corner this year and make the playoffs was an awesome feeling,'' he said. ''To win the first series felt like a mini Stanley Cup.''
Win three more games, and he'll find out what it's like to win the Cup for real.
''But we know it's going to get tougher, teams get more desperate. Every game in the series as it goes on is even more important,'' Iginla said. ''This (Game 2) is a huge game.''
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