Sharks regain control of series

Updated: May 17, 2004, 12:32 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- The overwhelming sense oozing out of the Saddledome on Sunday evening was that the Calgary Flames had finally and essentially shot their bolt.

Can Ville Nieminen and the Flames get out from under the Sharks' dominance in Game 5?
Then again, that could have been the bratwurst talking.

It could also be the short attention spans of playoff series talking. After all, four days ago, the San Jose Sharks were the ones that had been de-bolted, and were heading off to Alberta for a quick spin through the Calgary abattoir.

Meat, after all, is a big deal here.

But now Game 5 is upon us, and the Sharks have regained serve big-time.

Game 3 was instructive, essentially a 1-0 game made to look like 3-0 for accounting purposes, and with all sorts of delicious late-game antisocial behaviors to distract the rubes from the hidden truth -- that Calgary had lost its edge and was now going to have to play with the casino's deck after all.

Game 4, though, was the proof: An even first period, followed by a compendium of all the things that made the Sharks the Sharks.

Good goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov and superb defense in front of him. A break here, a power-play goal there, and suddenly the Flames looked like, well, like the Flames of 2003, and I think we all know how that plays here in the prairies.

Indeed, the killing moment came less than a minute after Calgary tied Sunday's game at one, when Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and defenseman Robin Regehr, who had been having a superb series, crossed each other up with a puck lying at the side of the net next to them.

San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo, who is coming perilously close to getting bored with all the questions about his family back in Moose Factory, Ontario, swept by, collected the puck and slipped it into the open net to return the lead to the Sharks and turn the game into a festival of bad temper, bad penalties and bad news for the Flames.

Calgary, once the redemptorist of the Canadian hockey tradition, is now staring into the face of some vicious history. True, the home team has yet to win in this series, which is not that unusual after four games of a best-of-seven series -- it's happened, after all, 17 times total, and 12 times in the last 11 years, including this one.

But the road team in such situations has only won Game 5 one of those 17 times, in 1995 (New Jersey over Philadelphia), and the winner of Game 5 has won the series 13 of the previous 16 times.

If you follow that sort of thing.

If you don't, there is still Calgary's ethereal power play, which has only a cheap 5-on-3 goal from Chris Simon 39.7 seconds from the end Sunday, to show for numerous chances in this series, and even in these playoffs.

And there is that sense that long-time hockey people say they get right about now, that they know when a series has been fully explained for the benefit of all, and those in the halls at the bottom of the Saddledome on Sunday night all agreed that Calgary was finally and hopelessly bolt-less.

This comes in radical opposition to the Tampa Bay-Philadelphia series, in which the teams have exchanged wins and really are about even right now. At least nobody there is yammering on about who's got control of whom.

Here, though, the feeling is all Sharks, all the time, because that's how it played out in the final two periods Sunday. San Jose played, and Calgary got frustrated. And the more the one happened, the more the other followed, until the final few seconds were just a classic pig-pile of shinny jurisprudence, all the way down to Simon and San Jose's Scott Thornton sent to their respective rooms for what can only be called the anticipation of impure thoughts.

Now it could be that, like Tampa-Philly, two games apiece in this series means two games apiece in this series. But nobody is seeing it that way, save perhaps Darryl Sutter, his night-shift workers, Don Cherry and all of Canada. The series still must play itself out, if only because of television obligations.

But the Flames have a lot of minds to unmake Monday night, a lot of history to shred, and a lot of cracks to re-spackle in not very much time. They may not do it -- in fact, the betting is that they won't -- but it will be a thigh-slapping, commode-hugging good time watching them try.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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