Road warriors must win at home

Updated: May 19, 2004, 4:15 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- Darryl Sutter had on that "bitter beer face'' he's become famous for. The one mixing incredulity, open hostility and thinly-veiled condescension.

You'd hardly believe this is a man one game from an improbable -- no, impossible -- berth in the Stanley Cup final.

Darryl Sutter
Darryl Sutter may actually smile if the Flames finally win at home.
The topic up for discussion (or rather, for knuckle-rapping lecture) on Tuesday morning was the appalling lack of home success by either side in this Western Conference showdown between his Calgary Flames and those northern California guys who used to write Sutter's checks.

"I would prefer to be 11-0 right now,'' said Sutter, in mock apology. "Geez, sorry we couldn't pull it off for you. Look at how close the games are. Every game we've played at home in the playoffs, other than one, with five minutes left it's been up for grabs.

"You think a team's just going to run the table at home? Home ice, to me, has no advantage. I think it used to in the old days because some buildings were 185 feet, some were 200, some teams' ice was horse---t and some were great.

"I think that affected teams.

"Now it doesn't matter.''

Certainly doesn't seem to. Neither the San Jose Sharks nor the Flames have been capable of using the so-called "home-ice advantage" to any sort of advantage at all. Calgary, amazingly, is 8-2 on the road this spring, but only 3-5 at the Pengrowth Saddledome. So, go figure. Might as well try to explain Stonehenge. Or crop circles. Or the lyrics to "MacArthur Park."

You'd have to believe one of these teams is going to buck this oddball trend over the next little while and in doing so lay claim to this series. And yet, while a San Jose victory tonight to be followed up by a Calgary rebound Friday at the HP Pavilion seems patently absurd, nothing in this wacky environment, no matter how far-fetched, seems out of the question.

Stranger things have happened, you know. Not a lot, mind you, but some.

What's beyond debate is that as of today the Flames are a win away from continuing this "Once upon a time ...'' yarn that has so shocked, yet so entranced, the entire hockey world. In doing so, they've turned a city noted for its taciturn, almost snobbish outlook on the game totally ga-ga, completely upside down.

So far this playoff year, they're 1-1 in home clinch chances, falling in Game 6 to the Vancouver Canucks in triple overtime before eliminating the Detroit Red Wings in a half-dozen games, also in OT.

Tonight would be arguably the most important home victory in franchise history, far outstripping the conference final wins over the St. Louis Blues (1986) and the Chicago Blackhawks (the Stanley Cup-winning springtime of '89). The two moments most cherished in the hearts of the Flames' faithful were, for those with short memories, both accomplished on the road -- the seventh-game Steve Smith "own goal" which clammed up the swaggering Edmonton Oilers, albeit briefly, 18 years ago, and the Stanley Cup-clinching triumph at the fabled Forum in Montreal, Game 6, three years later.

The opportunity to make history of a kind in front of the fans who've been so loyal for so long through such difficult times should surely be something they'll do everything in their power to accomplish.

First off, they'll be obliged to pinpoint what it is exactly they don't like about the Saddledome. Why the teams are having such problems on home ice is a mystery of Conan Doyle proportions. Outside of Game 1 of the series, when the Sharks riddled Miikka Kiprusoff for 52 shots and were cruelly beaten in overtime, the home team in each game deserved its fate.

"Tough to blame it on this or that or say we're better on the road because we stay in a hotel,'' sighed Flames' centerman Craig Conroy. "I guess we can all go to Darryl's house. That's fine with me. I've never been there. I hope it's big.

"We can all sleep on the floor.''

If it'd help, maybe Sutter could convince the missus for a kind of pajama party. Just nights before home games, of course.

Tough to blame it on this or that or say we're better on the road because we stay in a hotel. I guess we can all go to Darryl (Sutter)'s house. That's fine with me. I've never been there. I hope it's big. We can all sleep on the floor.
Flames center Craig Conroy on why the Flames are only 3-5 at home
The pressure is on them tonight. Calgary is, Dave Lowry dissenting, a young team by NHL standards. Still, it can count among its number a few players armed with Cup final experience. Defenseman Rhett Warrener, for instance, with both the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers.

"It's a nice memory when I'm sitting around in the summer,'' he said Tuesday. "But it doesn't mean squat in (tonight's) game.''

No, all that counts is the result.

"We have only ourselves to blame for where we're at,'' acknowledged centerman Vincent Damphousse.

No word of a lie there. After accomplishing the hard part, clawing themselves back into the series with two gut-check performances at the Saddledome, the Sharks inexplicably came out flatter than Roseanne Barr clearing her throat for another crack at the "Star Spangled Banner" on Monday night in front of the Teal. They found themselves down 2-0 for the third straight first period at home, and never looked to threaten Fort Kiprusoff. The Patrick Marleau-Damphousse-Alex Korolyuk line, so dominant in Games 3 and 4, were tossed in irons by Calgary checking. Smooth-skating defenseman Brad Stuart has yet to make the slightest impact on the series (in fact, he's a series-worst minus-6 after five starts).

"The position we're in, well, we've done this before and now we get to bounce back,'' said coach Ron Wilson in the aftermath of the stinker. "It's going to be awful difficult. Again, we sure find a way to make this as difficult as possible. But we have no other choice now.''

The choices for both teams this late in the run, and this late in the series, are narrow. The Flames obviously have a bit more wiggle room, but they're not fooling themselves. Yes, they have won three in a row in the Silicon Valley but expecting a Grand Slam might be pushing the bounds of reason just a little too hard.

"We realize the opportunity we have and, well, who knows when the next one might be,'' said Calgary captain Jarome Iginla. "We want it to be next year and every year after that, but that might not be the case. From our point of view it's about winning now. To be this close, we're not satisfied at all. And that's the truth.

"It makes us even hungrier.''

If the Flames themselves are starved, the city is absolutely famished.

Win tonight, and the Sharks force a Game 7.

Win tonight, and they give themselves one more chance to turn those echoing Shark Tank jeers to cheers.

Win tonight, and the Flames end the home hex in this series.

Win tonight, and they set this town off on a party the like of which hasn't been witnessed for 15 long, dry years.

Win tonight, and they might even turn Darryl Sutter's frown upside down.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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