TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ It wasn't long ago when Jarome Iginla and Martin St. Louis toiled together in obscurity with the Calgary Flames.
In four short years they have become two of the NHL's biggest offensive threats. Soon, one will add Stanley Cup champion to his ever-growing resume.
Iginla has emerged into an NHL star with the low-budget Flames, while St. Louis left Calgary in 2000 and established himself as a scoring champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
On Tuesday night, they will face off in the opener of the unlikeliest of Stanley Cup finals.
Iginla's first season as captain couldn't have gone any better. He tied for the league lead with 41 goals, led Calgary to its first playoff appearance in eight years, and has the Flames within four wins of the franchise's second championship.
Iginla is two years removed from his first goal title when he scored 52. With 17 playoff points this year, he trails only St. Louis.
``His statistics don't lie,'' St. Louis said Monday. ``From his junior career and all the way up to the NHL, he has been an impact on every team he's played on.
``He's a big reason why they are where they are.''
Before this season, the Lightning had never advanced past the second round. But with St. Louis, Tampa Bay had the best record in the East.
``You could see he was going to be a good player and he's developed to be a great player,'' Iginla said.
After the diminutive St. Louis, generously listed as 5-foot-9, had an NHL-best 94 points in the regular season, he came back with a league-high 18 points in the first three playoff rounds.
The Lightning beat the New York Islanders in five games and then dispatched Montreal in four. Tampa Bay survived a seven-game series with Philadelphia to get to the finals.
A run like that is more than Iginla or St. Louis could've imagined in the two seasons they spent as Calgary teammates.
St. Louis had one goal and one assist in 13 games in his rookie season and followed that with three goals and 15 assists in 56 games during the 1999-00 campaign.
Any team could've had him after that.
``I truly think it worked out for me in Calgary,'' St. Louis said. ``I wasn't drafted. I had nothing. Here's a team that gave me an opportunity to reach my dream and I relished that. I loved it. I was playing more of a checking role, but if that was the role that was going to bring me to the NHL or stay in the NHL, that's what I was going to do.''
The run-and-gun, go-for-it style employed by Lightning coach John Tortorella has been perfect for the quick St. Louis. He isn't a checker anymore and harbors no ill will for the Flames.
``I moved on and I mean, who would have thought that we would all be here now?'' he said.
Certainly not Iginla. The Flames are a low-budget team that isn't expected to be able to compete with the big-city teams with the overflowing payrolls. Iginla's expanding contract made him a prime candidate to be dealt to one of the fat cats.
``To be honest, I have to pinch myself,'' Iginla said. ``It is the Stanley Cup finals, one of only two teams left. The only Canadian team left.
``I am a fan myself, and wondered which team was going to be back and hoped it would be us.''
The Flames didn't take the easy route to the finals.
Calgary, the West's sixth-seeded team, beat No. 3 Vancouver, top-seeded Detroit, and No. 2 San Jose to become the first Canadian club in the finals since Vancouver in 1994.
And things won't get any easier as the Flames are opening on the road for the fourth straight series against a team that won its division and amassed over 100 points.
``There's such a fine line between making and not making the playoffs,'' Calgary coach Darryl Sutter said. ``That was our goal all season. Once you make the playoffs ... it's not about the best players then, it is about the best teams. I think we have proved that.''
The only other time a team knocked off three division winners in one playoff season, since the NHL took exclusive control of the Stanley Cup in 1927, was in 2000 when New Jersey won its second championship.
Both the Flames and Lightning have broken away from the trapping, defensive-minded style made popular by New Jersey. That kind of play made last year's finals between the Devils and Anaheim tough to watch.
What this series lacks in marquee value, it should more than make of for it in entertainment. Expect big hits, odd-man rushes and end-to-end action as each club tries to exploit mistakes.
``You need big plays to win games as you go through the playoffs,'' Tortorella said.
Calgary will be the more rested team, at least for Game 1. The Flames will have had five days off since knocking out San Jose.
Tampa Bay, which in January won the only regular-season meeting between the teams, was forced to play twice since Calgary last took the ice. That gave the Flames a chance to see what they will be up against.
``We know we are facing a very skilled and talented team,'' Calgary's Martin Gelinas said. ``If we keep sticking to our system, play well defensively, I think we could do a lot of good things.''