CALGARY, Alberta (AP) _ The pandemonium began while the puck was still in
play, sliding alone toward the tranquility of the San Jose Sharks' unguarded
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.
Captain Jarome Iginla scored his 10th playoff goal and the Flames advanced
to their first Stanley Cup finals in 15 years with a 3-1 victory over the San
Jose Sharks in Game 6 Wednesday night.
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
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.