In other circumstances, Joey Mullen's teammates might have razzed him unmercifully. Instead, they stole apprehensive glances at the Montreal Forum's scoreboard and tried to will the game clock to expire.
It was late in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. Mullen's Calgary Flames led 3-2, and Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy was off the ice, replaced by an extra attacker. Thus, for the second time in two games, an empty net beckoned Mullen, who was skating toward the Montreal zone with the puck. As the Canadiens closed in on him, he wristed a shot that bounced and skittered and finally plinked off the right post. The Montreal fans cheered in recognition of what they hoped was an emerging pattern.
In Game 3 two nights earlier, Mullen had missed an unattended net—and a hat trick—when his last-minute shot slid just wide of the goal. The errant shot seemed like an innocuous miscue, but Montreal winger Mats Naslund gathered in the puck and shot a knuckler from the blue line that eluded Flame goalie Mike Vernon and tied the score at 3-3 with 41 seconds to go. Thirty-eight minutes of overtime later, Ryan Walter scored off a Stèphane Richer pass to give the Canadiens a most unlikely victory.
So when Mullen missed his second empty net in 48 hours, it seemed like a grim omen. Fortunately for Calgary, the gods of hockey presiding over the Forum limit les Habitants to one miracle per weekend. Mullen got yet another shot at a vacant Montreal net seconds later, and this time he converted to give Calgary a 4-2 win. In this series, which was knotted at two games apiece at week's end, that qualified as a blowout.
The line separating the talent of Canadiens and Flames is as thin as the hair on Montreal forward Bob Gainey's head. The goaltending features Roy's fabulous flopping and butterfly stops and Vernon's magical glove. Advantage: neither. Who's the better defenseman, Calgary's Al MacInnis, with his storied slap shot, or Montreal's Chris Chelios, with his puck-rushing pizzazz? Pick 'em. So it goes, on down the roster. After the experts had disgorged their analyses, the series was too close to call: a best-of-seven turned best-of-five turned best-of-three, which will probably turn into a best-of-one on May 28.
After having won Game 1 by a score of 3-2, the Flames trailed 2-0 in Game 2, but then rallied to score two unanswered goals before the second intermission. In the locker room between periods the Canadiens were exhorted by an unexpected speaker. The 27-year-old Chelios stood and told his teammates, many of whom are his elders, how unacceptable he found the prospect of a loss.
He then went out and won the game all by his lonesome. His scorching slap shot made Vernon look punch-drunk, and that was the only goal Montreal needed. But, to be on the safe side, Chelios drew a penalty and set up Russ Courtnall's insurance goal on the power play. "Even when Chris isn't at the top of his game, at least he's out there trying hard," said Montreal coach Pat Burns.
Burns would hardly say the same about right wing Claude Lemieux, who, in Burns's opinion, has been guilty of giving less than 100% in these playoffs. Lemieux was once the premier "diver" in the NHL; that is, he was the league's master at feigning injuries to draw penalties. Alas, Lemieux abused the gift through overuse and lost it. "He's like the boy who cried wolf," says Chelios. "It worked the first year. Now...."
Now before the referees call a penalty against someone who has supposedly harmed Lemieux, they want to see gore. Burns has instructed Lemieux to deep-six his death scenes and to focus on hockey, but when Calgary's Jamie Macoun grazed Lemieux's leg with his stick in Game 1, Lemieux dropped writhing to the ice. Rolling his eyes, Burns forbade the team trainer to minister to Lemieux. "I felt like a fool," said Lemieux, who later admitted he was faking.
Burns scratched Lemieux from the lineup for the next two games, the second of which will stand as a Stanley Cup classic. For 59 minutes Calgary was the superior team, but then Mullen missed the empty net, and Naslund—goalless since mid-April—potted his end-over-ender to force overtime. To make the evening more memorable, Montreal enjoyed a rare postseason overtime power play after referee Kerry Fraser whistled Calgary's Mark Hunter for boarding Shayne Corson in the game's 97th minute. While the Flames bitterly argued the call, Walter skated over to Richer and whispered, "If you get a scoring chance, just make sure you put it on net. I'll be right out front." Translation: "Don't get so cute with the puck that you don't get a shot off."
Richer remembered the advice. He passed up a fancier wrap-around attempt, stopped at Vernon's doorstep and bounced the puck off Vernon's leg pad. As promised, Walter was on the scene, and the game—the longest Stanley Cup final match in 58 years—was history.
Burns decided to unleash Lemieux in Game 4 on Sunday. "I figure he'll eat the boards for me," said Burns. Instead, Lemieux was invisible until the last minute, when he put in a rebound to narrow Calgary's lead to 3-2. On his way to the bench, right in front of linesman Ron Finn, Lemieux took a swipe with his stick at Doug Gilmour of the Flames.
Almost reluctantly, referee Andy van Hellemond banished Lemieux to the penalty box, thereby dashing Montreal's hopes for a victory and ensuring that the series would go at least six games. Said Vernon afterward, "We played the same way we did in Game 3. The difference was, tonight we got the bounces."
Vernon got that right. When these two teams are finished with each other, the only thing separating them may be the bounces.