No. 6 seed two wins from Cup finals

Updated: May 12, 2004, 11:08 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The mood inside the Calgary Flames' locker room after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals was a perfect reflection of their feelings about this incredible playoff run: giddy enthusiasm coupled with a hint of disbelief.

Andrew Ference exchanged a high-five with Rhett Warrener. Jarome Iginla held court in the corner, greeting anybody who approached with a wide smile. Even taciturn goalie Miikka Kiprusoff ran a steady stream of chatter with his teammates.

With Game 3 coming up Thursday night at home, who expected the sixth-seeded Flames to be two wins from their first Stanley Cup finals in 15 years?

"Nobody, that's who," Ference said with a grin. "Nooooobody."

Certainly not Vancouver or Detroit, the two higher-seeded teams knocked off in the first two rounds by Calgary's hardworking bunch of unknowns behind Iginla.

Certainly not the San Jose Sharks, who had won five of their six home playoff games before losing twice in three days to the Flames. After a bitter overtime defeat in Game 1, the Sharks were trounced 4-1 in Game 2, embarrassed on their home ice and handed a huge task just to make the series competitive.

And even the Flames acknowledge their first postseason trip in eight years is going better than anyone anticipated. They're peaking at the best possible time in what already has been a dream season for a franchise that has been thoroughly mediocre since its only championship in 1989.

"We're right where we want to be, but we're not going to get overconfident, and we're not going to take anything for granted," said Iginla, the playoffs' leading scorer with seven goals and seven assists. "We're going to make sure that we manage our emotions and take the same approach to every game.

"We know how big the next game is, what a 3-0 lead can mean, but we're not going to get ahead of ourselves, because it can switch after the next game."

The Flames have been terribly rude guests so far in the playoffs, winning seven of their nine road games. However, they're playing just .500 hockey back home at the Saddledome, where thousands of playoff-starved fans have blanketed the building in red each night.

That palpable pressure could be an obstacle for the Flames, who understandably might flinch under the weight of a hockey-crazed city's dreams. But if Calgary sticks to its formula of hard work and great goaltending, there's no reason to expect this run to end.

The Flames won contrasting games in San Jose. They played at the Sharks' favored pace in the opener, rushing across the ice and allowing 52 shots against Kiprusoff.

"Our mind-set was still on playing Detroit," forward Marcus Nilson said. "They're totally different styles of game. We weren't ready for that style, but [in Game 2] we were more ready."

In the rematch, Calgary shut down nearly everything the Sharks tried. The Flames also had excellent forechecking and puck-handling -- two areas in which San Jose has dominated nearly every opponent this season.

While the Flames enjoyed their success, the Sharks practiced before flying to Calgary on Wednesday. The Sharks' mood was somber -- goalie Evgeni Nabokov snapped at reporters, and coach Ron Wilson contemplated big changes to a lineup that hasn't changed since the regular season.

"I'm just shaking the tree right now in practice to see what results," Wilson said. "We've changed our lines, promoted or demoted guys accordingly, just to change our practice, get guys to work a little bit different. What we'll decide to do for the game [Thursday] is an entirely different story."

Among the San Jose players who might be demoted or scratched: Nils Ekman, who has just two playoff points after getting 55 during the regular season; Curtis Brown, who has two points and a minus-4; or Wayne Primeau, with one goal and a minus-7.

But Wilson, always a master of motivation, will point out to his team that a 2-0 deficit in the NHL playoffs is hardly a disaster. The rally from such a hole has been completed 35 times -- most recently by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round against the Boston Bruins.

"We did this to ourselves, but we're confident we can get out of it," center Vincent Damphousse said. "If we were up 2-0, we would know the series is a long way from being over."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE