- George Johnson, NHL
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CALGARY, Alberta -- Tonight is not about resilience. It's not about pluckiness. Tonight is about ruthlessness. About cold-bloodedness. About dispassionate dispatch.
Tonight isn't about being a survivor. About being a prohibitive underdog or a feel-good story.
It's about being a finisher. Clinical. Decisive. Pitiless.
That five-hour charter flight is a drag. The temperature in Tampa is a broiling 92 degrees, hot enough to fry an egg Jarome Iginla's head. And humid? Man, there just isn't enough Arid Extra Dry on the planet. You go from outside into the air conditioning of the hotel room and develop pneumonia. The fans who congregate at the St. Pete Times Forum to watch Hulk Hogan rip his shirt on cue and catch a little hockey view them as no more than a gang of thugs, marauding Canadian hooligans out to steal what their beloved Lightning -- the dreamy Vincent Lecavalier, the opportunistic Brad Richards, the electrifying sprite, Martin St. Louis and The Bulin Wall -- are rightly entitled to.
Why, referee Kerry Fraser even stayed back there, lying in wait for a possible Game 7.
So Darryl Sutter's tired, transparent conspiracy theories aside, there isn't a reason on earth the Flames would make a return visit to Florida, unless it was a post-celebrations family outing to Disneyworld.
Why not here? Why not now?
To cart around the Stanley Cup on home ice? Gentlemen, those sorts of opportunities don't pop up every day.
A city of nearly a million people will be holding its collective breath at puck drop around 8:15 ET (ABC) when the Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning collide in what could be the last NHL hockey game for quite a while (depending on how collective bargaining negotiations proceed over the summer). This much-maligned Stanley Cup finals is coming off its most up-tempo, entertaining showcase, with plenty of hits, scoring chances and an overtime nail-biter, to boot. Throw in the ultra-rabid fanatics across southern Alberta and added drama of the Flames having the opportunity to be the first Canadian outfit since the '93 Habs to claim the holy old silver relic they all play for, and all is in readiness.
Without doubt, this is the biggest home game in the annals of the Calgary franchise. The '89 Flames made history by becoming the only visiting team ever to claim the Stanley Cup in the fabled, old Montreal Forum. They can add a new chapter to the history books this evening.
Speed merchant Shean Donovan's lower-body injury -- read: Aching leg -- won't be enough to keep him out of action. The nefarious Ville Nieminen has served his one-game suspension and is snapping and snorting, ready to be let off the leash. So the Flames are ready. Iginla, the man/boy who has become a man over these past nine weeks, is ready to strap the team to his back and carry it, if need be. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who'll establish a single-playoff-season record for minutes played tonight, is ready to add
to his growing local legend.
Be sure the 19,000 who'll jam the Saddledome to the rafters and provide this team with the most rapturous reception ever seen in this neck of western Canada, will be ready.
Red Mile down 17th Avenue -- and the Calgary constabulary -- are ready, too.
This unlikely band of mongrels that has astounded the hockey world must feel that all is in place. They've closed out the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks in six games on home ice. So they have positive experiences in this setting to draw upon. Perhaps the most admirable quality they've displayed through this battering of conference champions is the ability to shelve what's happened before, ignore what's going on around them and concentrate on the immediate task at hand.
For a team so young, with such relatively scant playoff experience, the Flames have managed to keep their emotions in check amazingly well throughout the ordeal.
Following Oleg Saprykin's OT goal in Tampa, chatty centreman Craig Conroy let his guard slip for an instant. "We're 60 minutes from the Stanley Cup ...'' Conroy paused, allowing that to sink in a moment. "Boy. That's exciting.''
"We've just to keep 'er under control,'' he then murmurred. "Just imagine how wild it must be back in Calgary right now. Just imagine how loud it's gonna be on Saturday.''
Tonight, they find out.
Those placid demeanors aside, the Flames players can't wait to let loose and howl. But only when the mission has been accomplished.
"If it happens, we'll let it out,'' promised Clark. "But you don't want to get too far ahead of yourself because if it doesn't happen, it'll be the worst feeling in the world. Horrible.''
Maybe Iginla will rise to the occasion, again. Or series serial-killer Martin Gelinas. But maybe it'll be one-point Chuck Kobasew or the intimidating Chris Simon. As these playoffs have progressed, the Flames have become accustomed to watching new heroes step to the fore. On Thursday, it was Saprykin jamming the puck past Nikolai Khabibulin to send 50,000 partygoers on 17th and another 17,000 watching on big-screen TV at the 'Dome into ecstacy.
"I hope there is a new hero (Saturday),'' said centerman Marcus Nilson. "But all guys that play are heroes. It really doesn't matter who ends up putting the puck in the net. When you win, you win as 20 guys. That's 20 heroes.''
Win tonight, and it's 20 for the ages.
Tonight. It's all about tonight. About playing with the patience, the poise, the confidence that has gotten them this far, one tantalizing win away. It's about closing the deal.
A city of almost a million people is ready to cut loose and celebrate.
Darryl Sutter's Lost Boys have sprinkled their own brand of pixie dust, made it permissible for Flames' fans of all ages to unashamedly become kids again by the promise of whisking them all away to a far-off, enchanted place where anything seems possible: Neverinamillionyearsland.
Their arrival there is at hand.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The only reason the Flames want to go back to Florida is to celebrate a Stanley Cup title at Disneyworld.