With extra man, tough guy turns go-to guy
CALGARY, Alberta -- Jarome Iginla may be the premier power forward in the NHL right now, but teammate Chris Simon, best known as a tough guy, has powered the Calgary Flames into the lead in the race for the Stanley Cup.
But then nothing's surprising in a series that features as many hits, fights and crushing body slams as it does picturesque goals, stellar goaltending and intriguing coaching matchups.
If Simon happens to emerge as Calgary's go-to scorer with the man advantage, well, the numbers don't lie.
The 6-3, 232-pound left winger best known for fighting and racking up some 1,596 regular-season penalty minutes in stops with the Capitals, Avalanche and Rangers, now has four of his team's six power-play goals in the postseason.
That's akin to Roger Clemens winning the home-run derby or Shaquille O'Neal taking home the free-throw crown.
Still, it was Simon who drove Calgary to a 3-0 win Saturday in the Pengrowth Saddledome and a 2-1 lead in the Flames' Stanley Cup finals series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He scored the game's first goal just past the midway point of the second period. Not only was his goal the game winner, but he also set up Iginla for a power-play goal and helped re-establish the way the Flames hope to win this series: Take the puck to the net and make something happen when you get there.
"I thought we played more physical in this game," Simon said. "I thought we got away from that a little bit in Game 2, but we played hard and physical throughout and it paid off."
That in itself is not surprising. Calgary got to this point by playing a relentless physical game. Simon does that as well as anyone his size. What is surprising, perhaps even amazing, is his newfound penchant for making the big play.
"That's how we score a lot of our goals," said Craig Conroy, a center who sometimes plays with Simon on special teams. "He goes to the net. He's physical and aggressive, and for a guy that big, he really does have some nice hands."
The Lightning would be wise to remember that when the coaching staff goes to the tape to look for reasons why the Flames are back in control of the series.
Calgary has shown itself to have one of the least effective power plays in the playoffs this spring. The finger of blame almost always points to whoever mans the points when the Flames have the man advantage. There simply isn't a player on the Calgary roster who has that "heavy" shot or game-controlling skating ability that defines the power-play quarterback role.
There are ways to work around that, however. Calgary coach Darryl Sutter does it by putting Simon near the net when the Flames have the man advantage. He tells his point men they don't have to be the second coming of Bobby Orr -- all they have to do is get the puck through to the net, and the forwards can take it from there.
Iginla can drive the net and make something happen from anywhere near it. Simon may not have the same skills set as the league's leading goal-scorer, but he can hold his position and whack away at the rebounds.
In a quid pro quo arrangement Saturday that produced the all-important first goal, Iginla threw the puck into a crowd that Simon dominated. He whacked at it twice before putting it past Bolts goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin while Lightning players fell all over themselves trying to knock him down. Simon later returned the favor by working it low to Iginla in front for the third tally. Shean Donovan scored the lone even-strength goal.
He also provided comic relief in commenting on Simon's NFL-like leap into the glass in celebration of his goal.
"He didn't get much elevation on it, but it was impressive," Donovan said.
"I was just so excited," Simon said. "I didn't know what I was doing out there. It was just emotion and you know, just so happy to score a goal. I really don't have much of a [goal-scoring] celebration, so, you know, that's mine. I guess my type of celebration is jumping into something."
It's quite the turnaround for Simon, who three months ago was playing toward an early spring with the Rangers. Now he says he's just happy to be playing. Playing for a championship is almost beyond his comprehension.
"Unfortunately, things weren't going well in New York ... I was so glad to get the opportunity to come to a team that had a chance to get into the playoffs and, you know, this team worked so hard and they battled hard all year."
Simon played for the Avalanche when they won the Cup in 2001, but he didn't dress in the championship round. He also got to the finals in 1998 with the Capitals and played a little, but the Caps lost to the Red Wings in four.
Clearly he has learned from the experience.
"I learned from great players," he said, citing such names as Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and Claude Lemieux in Colorado. "I listened a lot to what those guys said in the room before the game and [what they did] on the ice during games. ... I learned a lot from Dale Hunter in Washington in playing smart and poised out there. It was a lot of fun. To come here, it's awesome and, you know, to be depended on night in and night out is awesome. ... Winning is what it is all about, and I will do whatever it takes and whatever I have to do to win."
If that means playing on the power play with Iginla, well, surprise. It works.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.