CALGARY, Alberta -- The fans gasped and screamed; the two superstars danced and swung; the Tampa Bay Lightning coach smiled and clapped; and Calgary Flames forward Ville Nieminen had one thought as he watched Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier drop the gloves in the first period of Game 3:
"I guess we came to play tonight."
Iginla's goal and assist -- completing the rare Gordie Howe hat trick -- came in the more entertaining second and third periods. But it was the fight and the rest of Calgary's first period that determined Game 3.
You only need to watch the last 10 minutes of an NBA game to get the gist, but you only need to watch the first 10 minutes of a Flames game to clue in to the eventual outcome. So what if the Flames only fired two measly shots at Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin in the first period? Martin Gelinas threw a big (and illegal) elbow. Rhett Warrener demolished Ruslan Fedotenko. Nieminen took out Cory Stillman. Stephane Yelle crushed Dan Boyle. Craig Conroy, who was by his own admission "terrible" in Game 2, was everywhere. Then came the fight.
"It takes an entire first period to set the tone," said Flames defensemen Andrew Ference. "It takes leaders setting examples."
Now, Lecavalier scrapping isn't a huge deal. It's not like Gretzky throwing haymakers, or Yzerman, or Lemieux. It just doesn't happen often. That's why John Tortorella gave his best player a well-deserved ovation. But Iginla dropping 'em? Ho-hum.
"I wasn't clapping," said Calgary coach Darryl Sutter in his still caustic way. "Our top player is used to doing that."
Iginla took on Mattias Ohlund in the Vancouver series and Derian Hatcher in the Detroit series. He all but threw down with Scott Hannan in the San Jose series. "The fight is part of the intensity out there," Iginla said. It's also symptomatic of the Flames' intensity. Lecavalier fighting is a story; Iginla fighting is a sign.
A fight at the end of the game usually means the Flames have lost. But a fight in the first period means Calgary is hitting and keeping the rush-happy Bolt blueliners honest. In Game 2, Tampa's defensemen could join the play at will. That's what the Lightning do when they win: jump in, join up. Witness Boyle's late goal, which was scored after he had snuck up into the low slot on the weak side. Tonight, Boyle had his back turned more often than a WWE referee.
"Taking the body is an attitude," said Ference, who looked as unblemished as the rest of his teammates after the game. "If you're physical in one game, it won't convince the other team you'll do it for good."
And that's why Lecavalier's brave act was more of a blip than a tremor. Say what you want about whether fighting should be part of the game, there's no denying it's part of the Flames' game more than it's part of Tampa's. Where was Martin St. Louis on Saturday night? Just a single shot for him. And Frederick Modin, who was an absolute horse in Game 2? Did he even play? Zero shots for Modin. Maybe Lecavalier can withstand the hitting -- to give as good as he gets -- but what about the rest of the Tampa frontliners?
And Saturday night's win helps explain all those earlier home losses in the playoffs. In those games, the Flames took offensive risks to get that first goal. Tonight, the grunt work came before the glory.
"The goal came," Iginla said, "when the damage had already been done."
The Flames' last Game 3, a frustrating loss to San Jose, ended with Iginla getting kicked out for end-of-game shenanigans. After putting on a brave face for the cameras and getting dressed, Iginla met his wife Kara in the Zamboni entrance at the Saddledome. He had a hangdog look on his face.
"I wish we'd given the fans something to cheer about tonight," he said then.
No such problem this time.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.