Bob Johnson, coach of the Calgary Flames, beamed after a 4-2 home victory Saturday gave his team a three-games-to-two lead over the St. Louis Blues in the Campbell Conference championship. Then someone mentioned the Edmonton Oilers and Johnson's face took on a beatific glow.
"Nothing, but nothing, can ever duplicate the emotion and intensity of that series," he said, still savoring the seven-game Flames victory over the two-time Stanley Cup champion Oilers in the previous round. For the Flames, the Oilers had been an obsession. They had capitalized on late-season trades for right wing Joe Mullen from the Blues and John Mullen from the Islanders to make that quantum leap into the conference final. Everything was right and perfect in Calgary's world...until it got the Blues. The St. Louis Blues, that is, that baffling collection of castoffs and no-names. How to prepare for those guys after you've beaten the Oilers?
There were no easy answers and this was no easy series for the Flames, who hoped to meet Montreal in the first all-Canada Stanley Cup final since 1967. But as the Blues proved by winning Game 6 Monday night in St. Louis to force a decisive seventh game Wednesday, this was a persistent bunch that wouldn't just go away. "We have done the impossible before," said Blues coach Jacques Demers. Indeed, his team had gone the distance to take out both Minnesota and Toronto in previous rounds.
St. Louis-Calgary was hardly a dream matchup, unless, of course, one was in the habit of ingesting large pizzas with anchovies just before bedtime. Calgary had to avoid post-Oilers Flame-out and contend with the losses, because of injuries, of Rookie of the Year candidate Gary Suter, a defenseman, and center Carey Wilson. And the Blues' we'll-watch-while-you-make-the-mistakes game plan was designed to lull their opponents into a torpor.
"The Bore War," one Calgary writer dubbed it, and at times it was a popgun battle of attrition. But anything that followed the province of Alberta's "Uncivil War" between Edmonton and Calgary figured to be a letdown. "It might be dull for the fans, because St. Louis keeps dumping out of their own zone time after time after time," Flames defenseman Neil Sheehy said following Game 5. "It's not that end-to-end game we saw against Edmonton. But it's exciting if you're their coach because they're sticking right with their game plan."
The Blues jumped on Calgary in Game 1 at the Saddledome, scoring two goals in the final six minutes to win 3-2. Said Flames goaltender Mike Vernon, "Our heads weren't in it yet. But after that game we realized we were in for a long, tough series." The Flames' superior speed and success on the power play accounted for 8-2 and 5-3 victories in Games 2 and 3, but the Blues rebounded in Game 4 in St. Louis with a 5-2 win.
The fact that the Blues were giving the Flames fits shouldn't have come as a complete surprise: St. Louis won five straight games from Calgary over two seasons before the Flames finally beat the Blues 4-1 in their last meeting this year. "I keep hearing that the Blues aren't such a good hockey team," said Johnson. "But look at an 80-game breakdown of their season. They did well against Edmonton [1-1-1], Montreal [2-1-0] and Philadelphia [1-2-0]. I looked to see if any team has handled them this season so I could watch those game films and see what they did. I couldn't find one game. Not one."
Of course, these were not the same teams that met in the regular season. The big trade on Feb. 1 sent Mullen—the NHL's third-best scorer among right wings, behind the Islanders' Mike Bossy and the Oilers' Jari Kurri—and defenseman Terry Johnson from the Blues to Calgary for defenseman Charlie Bourgeois and forwards Gino Cavallini and Eddy Beers. Certainly, both teams benefited from the exchange.
The Flames are a splendid mix of beauties (Mullen, Hakan Loob) and beasts (Sheehy, Tim Hunter); experience (Tonelli, Lanny McDonald, and Doug Risebrough) and youth (Vernon, Dan Quinn, Joel Otto). General manager Cliff Fletcher has built through the draft and free-agent signings, then used that depth to deal for players like Tonelli and Mullen. He didn't have that luxury when the franchise was located in Atlanta from 1972 to '80; then he risked mortgaging the future for immediate success. Recently the Flames have been dubbed Team NCAA. Johnson coached at the University of Wisconsin, and the team carries 11 players from U.S. colleges: Sheehy, Mullen, Otto, Wilson, Suter, Colin Patterson, Brett Hull, Mike Eaves, Perry Berezan, Steve Bozek and Jamie Macoun.
Calgary was giving it the old college try in a series that bounced back and forth with no apparent rhyme or reason. But what the Flames were learning was this: It can be awfully tough to shake the Blues.