Veteran Stephane Yelle, a defensive specialist by nature who scored just three times in 74 regular season games, became the Flames first unsung hero of the playoffs, scoring twice to lead Calgary to a 3-2 win over San Jose in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarter final playoff series.
Yelle, 33, has been through plenty of playoff wars, in Colorado and in Calgary. He is counted on for face-offs and for knocking down opposition defencemen on the forecheck. But he was deployed in all sorts of situations -- centering a checking line and sometimes playing alongside Jarome Iginla
as Calgary coach Mike Keenan juggled his lines to keep the Sharks on their collective toes.
"Sometimes you feel like the playoffs are a new season," said Yelle. "You have to get bounces. You have to have some luck and you have to have different people cntributing. Tonight, I got lucky."
It was Iginla who did the brunt of the work on Yelle's second goal that put the Flames up 3-1 late in period two. Iginla stripped the puck from Brian Campbell, the prized defenceman the Sharks picked up at the trade deadline from Buffalo, at the Flames blueline and then raced the length of the ice. He was tripped by Campbell, got back up and got off a shot on Shars goalie Evgeni Nabokov and then crashed the net.
Yelle was in the slot, picked up the rebound and buried it as Iginla followed through and knocked the net off its moorings. It was so close that the play went to video headquarters in Toronto for review but was ruled a good goal -- the puck crossing the line before Iginla had knocked the net off.
"It was a great play by Iggy to fight and push the puck forward and push to the net," said Yelle.
Two goals and two reviews for Yelle as his first goal was breifely reviewed, perhaps for a high-stick violation.
"I don't really care. As long as the ref points to centre ice, I am happy," said Yelle. "I hadn't scored in a long time. It felt good to chip in."
The timing of the goal, too, was critical. After a terrific start to the game -- the Flames outshot the Sharks 8-1 early in the first period -- Calgary was under pressure from the speed and attack of the Sharks, certainly a more determined team in the second period. The Sharks actually owned an 11-1 shot advantage until the Flames went on a power play at 13:33 and gradually regained the momentum needed to carry themselves to a critical Game 1 win.
Yelle quited the crowd at the Shark Tank just 2:47 into the game when he tipped a point shot past Nabokov for his first goal since January, a span of 31 games.
Iginla, for one, was quick to point out that Yelle, whose nickname is Sandbox, does plenty away from the net like blocking shots and winning face-offs. But he also noted that the playoffs are about contributions from everyone.
"It's all guys coming through with big plays and big goals," said Iginla.
The Flames hung on at times in this game but they did exactly what they wanted to do here in Silicon Valley. They assured themselves of a split in the first two games of the series and sent a message to the Sharks that they have no plans of going quietly into the night in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Against a fast, big San Jose team, there are going to be breakdowns defensively and there were some.
"We had a lot of energy to start the game," said head coach Mike Keenan. "We were focused.We were able to establish a pretty good road game."
In a loud, very enthusiastic HP Pavilion, the Flames were able to establish themselves early with some strong forechecks and by getting pucks to the San Jose net where they always created a crowd in front on Nabokov.
The keys going into the game, according to head coach Mike Keenan, were a stingy defence backed by solid goaltending and hard-working, good special teams.
They got good goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff
, who dealt with plenty of swarming Sharks in front of his net looking for juicy rebounds. He made plenty of Kiprusoff-like saves -- ask Joe Pavelski how quick Kiprusoff's reaction is when you are shooting from in close -- and got a little help from the iron when Joe Thornton rattled a shot off the post early in the third period. A goal there and things might have looked a lot different for the rest of the game.
"We played hard all night but we have to make Kipper's job more difficult. He made a lot of great saves but we have to be more determined in that area," said Sharks coach Ron Wilson, whose team outshot Calgary 39-23.
"They came in flurries. Miikka was solid for us," said Keenan.
The Flames scored on a power play and killed off two penalties against a team that is known for its special teams.
The Sharks scored an empty net goal, the second from one their grinders, Ryane Clowe, with under a minute to play and an extra attacker on the ice. That made for a wild and wooly finish with Kiprusoff closing the door and giving the Flames the series lead.
There's little time to ponder the next game. It is here just 24 hours after the first puck drop and the Flames expect a fired up Shark team to come out hard.
"They came out hard tonight. They always do," said Yelle.
"Now that we have this one, we are are going to look at getting No. 2 right away," said Iginla.
That's possible, too. The Flames won the first two games of the Western Conference Final in this very building in 2004, the year they went all the way to the Stanley Cup.