The infernal flames are still burning. By the sleight of their
goalie's hand and the stoutness of their hearts, the Calgary
Flames barged into San Jose and won the first game of the Western
Conference final, 4-3 in overtime on Sunday, in a paean to the
implausible. They allowed a 1980s-like 52 shots; their star
forward had one shot in his 25 minutes on the ice; their
defensemen handled the puck as if it were ticking; their centers
were picked clean on almost every critical face-off; and they
squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2--all of which made it a game the
Flames had no right winning.
Of course as Calgary coach and general manager Darryl Sutter
likes to say, "Every time somebody says we can't, we can."
Already this postseason the sixth-seeded Flames have upset the
third-seeded Vancouver Canucks and the top-ranked Detroit Red
Wings with an unrelenting physical style that Sharks coach Ron
Wilson called "merciless" before this series. Yet as hellish as
Calgary is to play against, the Flames are charmed with an
adolescent innocence. After Sunday's win, in which their four
goals were scored by three players who had combined for 12 during
the regular season, they sat around the visitors' dressing room
and sang along with Ring of Fire. Badly.
The Flames may or may not win their first Stanley Cup since 1989,
but they will at least earn their varsity letters. Being around
this team is like revisiting your high school locker room. The
Flames have even less pretension than payroll. (Calgary's $35.2
million at the start of the season was 19th among 30 NHL teams.)
Following victories, the Flames butcher Johnny Cash (left wing
Marcus Nilson started that practice after arriving in March) and
yell a sophomoric cheer led by right wing Shean Donovan. They
also award a hard hat to the most diligent player of the game.
The idea is not original--except that in Calgary the player
actually wears it for postgame interviews. Goalie Miikka
Kiprusoff, who had made a season-high 49 saves, including a dozen
of the circus variety, wore the hat after Game 1 and looked like
a Village People refugee.
This is a team so spiritually close to its fans that it does not
play before home crowds as much as it is the focus of a
neighborhood watch. The homeyness is manifest in the more than
20,000 Flames flags that have been sold in the past month as well
as in the phone call to radio station FAN 960 last Friday from a
Flames supporter who said he was driving the 1,000 miles to San
Jose and wondered if the talk-show jocks could hook him up with
While the caller was on the air, Flames center Craig Conroy
phoned the show. "Get his particulars," said Conroy, who would
score two goals for the first time all season in Game 1. "I'll
take care of him."
"Craig," the host said, "you can't take care of everybody who
needs a ticket."
"I won't. Just this guy."
It was Conroy who introduced the hard hat last October,
expropriating it from equipment manager Gus Thorson hours before
the first game of the season. The immediate response was,
"Green?" The toxic shade, one that appears nowhere in nature,
clashed with Calgary scarlet, but after some initial clucking
from the what-not-to-wear set in the room, it has been embraced
unreservedly--not only by players but also by fans queuing to buy
replicas for about $10.75 at the team store. ("Bad business
decision not to patent it," Conroy says with mock chagrin. "I
should be getting a cut.")
The hard hat is rarely awarded to the conspicuous Kiprusoff or to
MVP-caliber right wing Jarome Iginla, who set up the overtime
winner after going without a shot in regulation. It usually goes
to industrious souls such as Robyn Regehr, one of the NHL's best
defenseman under 25, or opportunistic left wing Martin Gelinas,
who has a playoff-record three career overtime goals that have
ousted opponents, including Vancouver and Detroit this spring.
Iginla and Conroy, his linemates, have graced Gelinas with a
nickname: the Eliminator.
The Flames play honest if not especially artistic hockey--the
dominating skills of Iginla (a league-high 41 goals this season)
notwithstanding. Calgary typically chips the puck deep,
compelling a defenseman to turn his back on the rush, and then it
unleashes forecheckers to play bumper cars along the boards in an
effort to knock the puck loose and create scoring chances. The
Flames may trap on a line change but generally make sure the
puckhandler feels more pressure than a slacking senior feels
taking the SATs. The approach is similar to that of several
teams, including San Jose, but Calgary does it at a high tempo
and with enough will-sapping checking to mask middling talent.
Sutter implemented the system in December 2002, when he was named
Flames coach just 27 days after being fired by the Sharks. Even
before he could begin transforming Calgary into a younger, faster
team, Sutter had to alter its attitude. The Flames had gone seven
years without a playoff appearance and 15 years without a series
win (since the 1989 Cup finals), and losing had insinuated itself
into the marrow of the franchise--a problem much like what had
plagued the Eastern Conference finalist Tampa Bay Lightning (page
50). "The first thing I had to do was convince them we weren't a
one-man team," Sutter says. "The whole emphasis was on [Iginla].
Unless he scored, we weren't going to be successful. We had to
make more people responsible. If two people, Iginla and the
goalie, were going to get all the credit or all the blame, how
the hell were you ever going to win?"
Not that Sutter ever excuses Iginla, who entered this week tied
for the league lead with 13 points. "[Sutter] might have
favorites, but he doesn't play favorites, if that makes sense,"
Gelinas says. "He calls us all out." After Game 1 in Vancouver,
Sutter publicly challenged Iginla to step up his game. The
captain responded with brio, scoring and hitting and getting
entangled in two rare fights, first with Canucks defenseman
Mattias Ohlund, who had cross-checked him into the end boards,
and later with nasty Red Wings blueliner Derian Hatcher, who
basically had been performing surgery on Iginla's calves with his
stick. "They take liberties, and he gets mad," Conroy said of
Iginla. "You hate to see it, but that's who he is." Conroy
figures the over-under on the number of games before Iginla
fights Scott Hannan, the Sharks defenseman who hounded the Blues'
Keith Tkachuk and the Avalanche's Peter Forsberg in the first two
rounds, is three.
Calgary is no longer the mystery guest of the playoffs. And if
there were any lingering self-doubts about its place at the
table, Sutter's sarcasm brought them into sharp relief during the
second intermission of Game 2 against Detroit. He
matter-of-factly told the Flames that if they wanted autographs
of the Red Wings' future Hall of Famers, he would be happy to
arrange it. His players grasped the meaning, quit genuflecting
and won three of the next four, Kiprusoff throwing down 1-0 wins
in Games 5 and 6.
The next day the Calgary zoo named a newborn Rocky Mountain
bighorn sheep Kipper in honor of the laconic goalie. Have you
ever had anything else named after you? Kiprusoff was asked.
"Hopefully not," he replied.
But bighorn sheep, a series-opening goal in San Jose from
enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa, a game-winner from unheralded
defenseman Steve Montador: Calgary takes what it can get. With
less than two minutes left in overtime on Sunday and Iginla
controlling the puck in the Sharks' zone, Montador, trailing the
play, started tapping his stick as he crossed the red line to
alert Iginla that he was open. "The way he was banging the stick
the whole way up the ice," a grinning Conroy said later, "I
thought we were back in peewees. I was afraid he'd break it."
Stick intact, Montador blew a wrist shot past San Jose goalie
Evgeni Nabokov. The Flames poured onto the ice, primed for the
Big Dance--the prom, if not the Cup final.
Conroy figures the over-under on the number of games before
Iginla fights Scott Hannan is three.
For more NHL playoff coverage, including breakdowns of every
series, go to si.com/hockey/nhl/specials/playoffs/2004.