CALGARY, Alberta (AP) _ The pandemonium began while the puck was still in play, sliding alone toward the tranquility of the San Jose Sharks' unguarded net.
When the final score of the Western Conference finals bisected the goal line as time expired, the Calgary Flames and their fans were going too crazy to notice. With one more fantastic finish, Canada's team had earned the right to play for the Cup.
Miikka Kiprusoff made 18 saves for the Flames, whose victory was the first by a home team in the series. But Calgary's ``Red Sea'' finally had something to cheer as the Flames took an early lead and hung on through the third period.
Calgary missed the playoffs in each of the previous seven seasons before a young roster, a new coach and an otherworldly goalie put together one of the most improbable playoff runs in recent history _ and it's not over yet.
``You never know when this opportunity is going to come again in your life,'' said Iginla, who leads the playoffs with 17 points. ``You'd like to think it's going to happen every year ... but we know that's not the case. You have to grab it when it comes.''
The Sharks pulled goalie Evgeni Nabokov in the final minute of a relentless third-period attack, but the Flames' Robyn Regehr was credited with a goal with one second left after San Jose's Alex Korolyuk attempted to pass the puck from behind the Calgary net.
It went the length of the ice, settling into the net while the Flames threw their sticks and gloves in the air.
Martin Gelinas, twice an overtime hero in series-clinching games, also put the puck in the net for the sixth-seeded Flames, who will open their fourth straight playoff series on the road Tuesday, either at Tampa Bay or Philadelphia.
Gelinas got the eventual winning goal in the second period.
``(Overtime goals) are too hard on my heart,'' he said. ``It was good to get it out of the way early. ... When we started the season, we knew we had a gritty team that worked hard, and our goal was to make the playoffs. To say that we were going to get the Stanley Cup, that's hard to believe.''
Calgary hasn't been in the NHL's final round since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 _ and the Canadian anthem will be sung in the finals for the first time since Vancouver made it in 1994. A Canadian team hasn't won the Cup since Montreal's victory in 1993.
The party spilled out into the streets in Calgary, where thousands of fans honked horns, waved banners and turned the popular 17th Avenue entertainment district into a parking lot.
Alyn McCauley scored for San Jose, but the best season in franchise history ended with back-to-back losses in the Sharks' first appearance in the conference finals. San Jose also lost its final four home games of the playoffs, running out of energy and focus despite its 104-point regular season and home-ice advantage in every round.
``We just didn't have good luck this time,'' said center Vincent Damphousse, whose career with the Sharks probably is over. ``We've got a lot of breaks in the playoffs, but I guess our luck just ran out.''
Nabokov made 27 saves but lost again to Kiprusoff, his former backup. Kiprusoff arrived in Calgary in a trade last November, and the Flames haven't been the same _ they've been good enough to roar past every Western team with a low-budget roster and an impeccable work ethic.
``You never pictured this in your wildest dreams,'' said Craig Conroy, whose steal of a second-period faceoff set up Gelinas' goal. ``Everything about this season has just been too good to be true.''
The Flames had more jump from the opening faceoff, narrowly missing several scoring chances before Iginla walked in on Nabokov for a power-play goal with 93 seconds left in the first period.
Three minutes after Conroy assisted on Gelinas' goal, McCauley scored San Jose's first goal in approximately 118 minutes _ but that was it for the Sharks, who scored just once in the final seven periods of the series.
Though coach Darryl Sutter rejects the idea of his team representing the nation, try telling that to millions of proud Canadian hockey fans who have transferred their allegiances from the Maple Leafs or the Oilers to Calgary's band of overachievers for the spring.
And never mind that the Flames have a Finnish goalie and two Americans in their regular starting lineup, or that every NHL team has a roster crowded with Canadians: They prefer to root for the home team in the Great White North.
And Sutter never would acknowledge any satisfaction in dispatching the team that fired him just 17 months ago _ but the coach wore a broad smile after his team clinched his first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
|PPG - Jarome Iginla (10) ASST: Craig Conroy (9), Jordan Leopold (8)|
1 - 0 CGY
|Martin Gelinas (6) ASST: Craig Conroy (10)|
2 - 0 CGY
|Alyn McCauley (2) ASST: Nisse Ekman (3), Mike Rathje (5)|
2 - 1 CGY
|EN - Robyn Regehr (2) ASST: NONE|
3 - 1 CGY
|Power Play %||21.6%||18.8%|
|% on Road||19.5%||19.0%|
|% at Home||23.8%||18.7%|
|Curtis Brown Hi-sticking against Marcus Nilson|
|Curtis Brown Hi-sticking against Marcus Nilson|
|Oleg Saprykin Interference - Obstruction against Todd Harvey|
|Jason Marshall Holding against Shean Donovan|
|Kyle McLaren Tripping against Ville Nieminen|
|Chris Clark Interference against Mike Ricci|
|Robyn Regehr Hooking against Vincent Damphousse|