No speculating about Game 4 implications

Updated: May 30, 2004, 8:51 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- Every coach, player or general manager will tell you at the drop of a Calgary cowboy hat how important it is not to lose two games in a row in the Stanley Cup finals.

Getting someone to address the advantage of winning two in a row is considerably more difficult.

It's not that the players don't know the value of such a feat. Calgary Flames defenseman Mike Commodore talked carefully Sunday about how his team's close-out victories over the Detroit Red Wings, a pair of back-to-back 1-0 wins, enabled the players to believe they could be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary's stunningly good goaltender, acknowledged that any breakthrough in any series will come the moment a team can build enough momentum to break through the current win-one, lose-one cycle.

Neither man, however, was willing to predict that the Flames are going to do just that.

They are, however, in a position to do so.

Like all athletes faced with a challenge, hockey players are trained to live in the moment. They never look too far ahead because it often leads to losing sight of the task at hand. The only thing worse is openly speculating about it.

Fortunately, we have numbers to rely on.

Teams have trailed a best-of-seven series 3-1 a total of 200 times, according to Total Stanley Cup, the official Stanley Cup playoff record book. Only 19 times have teams come back to win the series, a success rate of 9.5 percent.

The odds are considerably steeper in the finals. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs erased a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Detroit Red Wings, but that was considered a war-years abnormality. The 1987 Philadelphia Flyers -- in an epic series with Edmonton -- came close, as did the 1994 Vancouver Canucks in a series with the New York Rangers, but both teams lost in Game 7. The truth is, it just isn't done.

Which is why Monday's Game 4 (ABC, 8 ET) arguably is the most important one in the series for both teams.

If the Flames win, they lead the series 3-1 and need only one win in the following three games to claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1989. Even if the series goes the distance and two of those three games must be played at Tampa, the odds are still in Calgary's favor because the Flames already have won one game in Tampa and they are a proven road team.

Conversely, Tampa Bay can draw even with a win, which may well lead to a surge in momentum heading home. But should the Lightning lose, well, they read the history books, too.

Momentum in the Stanley Cup finals is like the Super Bowl. When one team is up by a touchdown, it's still a contest. But up by two or more, and the controlling team has a surge in confidence, a mental willingness to do whatever it takes to win. Conversely, the team that falls behind senses that the end might be at hand and that a season full of work, hopes and dreams is about to end in disappointment and failure.

When that happens, the difference between each team's determination becomes obvious and often leads to outsized wins or loses. For one, the goal is at hand; for the other, impending failure robs them of the will to compete.

Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella concedes that he needs to prepare his team to keep that from happening. Ever the positive preacher, Tortorella is aware of the consequences of losing two in a row.

Sunday afternoon, he noted that the key to success in the playoffs is to get and keep some momentum. "I know we have not been able to do that from game to game," he said. "And sometimes I think that both teams have struggled [keeping it] within the game itself.

"That's the key to winning a seven-game series. It's how long you can keep that momentum on your side. If we're able to do it in back-to-back games, you know you'd be in a pretty good position, but we haven't been able to do it."

Nor have the Flames, at least not yet. But unlike the Lightning, they aren't playing to get back to even but rather are in a position to gain a substantial edge.

Should they secure it, the odds swing wildly in their favor. At this point, it's as much a mental thing as it is an element of execution of physical play.

"You want to focus solely on what you have to do to win," Commodore said. "But then you also know the position you could be in if you don't do that. It's not always easy to ignore that."

"You want to take it one game at a time," added Kiprusoff, "but at the same time you know what it's like to get some momentum. They are a tough team and it's never easy, but ..."

He wasn't about to finish the thought.

In a series as tight as this, it isn't difficult to understand why.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Sherry Skalko is the NHL editor.

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