Flames follow Cup to Tampa

CALGARY, Alberta -- Long after the almost eerie Calgary Flames' locker room cleared out Saturday night, a small digital clock in a far corner still read 19:27.

When Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis roofed the Game 6 winner 33 seconds into double overtime, time stopped in the Saddledome. The place was so loud, and then so quiet. So full, and then so empty.

"Stunned," said longtime Flames broadcaster Pete Maher. "The fans were just stunned. Then they realized the players were leaving the ice, and ..."

Maher couldn't finish the sentence. Neither could most of the Flames. "We're disappointed, but ..." said Martin Gelinas.

Even as the players whispered, fans sat still in the stands, watching the empty ice. The almost palpable tension had been replaced by the sad stench of beer and the sadder sound of cleaning crews. The Stanley Cup is leaving Calgary.

"We're supposed to still be watching hockey," muttered one inebriated fan, leaning up against the glass with an empty beer cup in his hand.

But could this season end any other way for Canada's improbable team? When they hit the ice for Game 7 on Monday, the Flames will have played as many games as any other playoff team in history. Miikka Kiprusoff has played more minutes in these playoffs than any other goalie in history. This team is trying to become the lowest seed ever to win an NHL championship, and the Flames have done it by winning an NHL-record 10 playoff games on the road. So it's fitting that their season comes down to one more.

The Flames will need everything they did not have Saturday night. First, they will need to hit. Where was the checking from Game 5? Where were the fleet Flames forwards playing roller derby in the corners? Where were the backchecking maniacs? Where was the punishment that wearied the Lightning almost to the point of submission?

"They moved the puck quick," said Gelinas. "That made it hard to get some hits."

Classy, and true. The Lightning defense -- really the key to the entire series (save, perhaps, Brad Richards) -- played a superb road game. Tampa's blueliners were quick and smart the entire evening, and confused Calgary.

But it was more than that. The Flames simply did not scare the Lightning the way they have in their finals wins. They did not press, force, chase, drive. They did not impose. "I just thought some of our guys that we play a lot and expect to be really good for us just weren't as sharp tonight as they have been in other games," said Calgary coach Darryl Sutter.

Namely, Jarome Iginla.

Now make no mistake, Calgary's captain is a worthy Conn Smythe candidate, even if he sleeps in Sunday and misses the team flight to Tampa. He is, arguably, the world's best player. But Iginla had two shots in Game 6, and none after the second period. He was on the ice for the winner. "Their higher scorers beat our higher scorers," Iginla said. Another night like that on Monday, and Calgary's dream ends on the Gulf Coast.

Credit the Lightning again. They suffocated Iginla in Games 2 and 6, and those were the only games the Flames did not carry the play. Game 7 rides on whether Iginla can rule the way he did in Game 5.

Iginla and the Flames have been here before. They were supposed to close out the Vancouver Canucks on home ice in Game 6. Instead, Iginla was hardly a factor and Calgary lost in triple overtime on a goal by Brendan Morrison, a smallish but hugely talented scorer. No one expected the Flames to rebound in a raucous road rink. But Iginla played like Mark Messier circa 1994, and there was no stopping him.

So here we are again. A heartbreaking Game 6 loss. An all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road. And Iginla on the spot. The Stanley Cup is leaving Calgary. Now the ultimate underdogs have one chance to bring it back.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.