Flames feel the heat at home
CALGARY, Alberta -- Though Calgary claims its hometown fans are the NHL's best, that adoration has brought out the worst in the Flames recently.
The Flames are 3-4 at home in the playoffs after the San Jose Sharks' shutout victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night, cutting Calgary's series lead to 2-1.
The road team has won all three games in the series, and both coaches believe it might be a reflection of the incredible pressures of playoff hockey on two young teams with no experience playing this late in the spring.
"Obviously, we'd like to do better at home," Calgary forward Shean Donovan said Friday. "The fans came out with a little something extra, and maybe we tried to do a little bit too much. You need to win the home games.
"We've got the best fans in the league, and I think sometimes we try to get too fancy and do too many things for them. We just need to get back to playing ugly Flames hockey."
But when the lights go down as the Flames take the ice at the Saddledome, it's a thrilling experience. The fans, mostly clad in bright red shirts or jerseys, rise to a deafening roar while dazzling bursts of flame fill the sky.
But the Flames acknowledge they're sometimes overhyped from a combination of the pomp, the cheers and the sky-high hopes of the fans, who went seven years without playoff hockey before this magical season.
Or could the pressure and scrutiny of being "Canada's team" -- the unofficial honor annually given by journalists and fans to the final Canadian club left in the playoffs -- be a stress to the young Flames?
"We've done a lot better job winning games on the road," Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr said as he prepared for Sunday's Game 4. "We just haven't done a good enough job making this a tough place to play. I don't know (why)."
Home nerves and road cool also can be seen in the Eastern Conference, where the Tampa Bay Lightning are halfway to the Stanley Cup finals after going 5-0 away from home.
A road trip was exactly what the Sharks needed to get back on their game. San Jose played sturdy defense in front of Evgeni Nabokov and forechecked with an aggressiveness that never appeared in the first two games -- both home losses in front of a deadened crowd at the Shark Tank.
"You feel the most pressure (at home)," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "The only expectations you should be carrying are the ones you have in your own locker room. ... I think that's what's helped us -- getting on the road and just being by ourselves in the room.
"The stakes are higher. The pressure's so much more intense. The lights are brighter. Every word you say is scrutinized. It's just a totally different environment that unless you've been there, you don't know."
That pressure boiled over in the final minutes of Game 3, when a few of the Flames took exception to an empty-net goal scored by Alex Korolyuk. Instead of scoring quickly, Korolyuk pulled up short of the net in an attempt to pass to captain Patrick Marleau.
Though some Flames and coach Darryl Sutter saw nothing wrong with Korolyuk's actions, other players and a section of the Canadian media insisted Korolyuk crossed one of hockey's imaginary lines in the ice. An evening of hacking, jersey-holding and facewashing is fine, but any possibility of showboating must be swiftly punished.
The resulting scrum finished with a fight between Calgary goon Chris Simon and pacifistic Sharks defenseman Mike Rathje, who was sporting a nasty black eye at San Jose's team hotel in downtown Calgary on Friday.
Though Rathje shrugged off Simon's shenanigans, Wilson called the incident "a black eye" for hockey -- even though Wilson and Simon are close from their years together in Washington.
"That's the sport we play," Calgary defenseman Andrew Ference said. "If you have complete respect for each other, you should go play pool or something. Guys like us play this game because we like the intensity, the physical play.
"It's not a black eye for hockey. It is hockey."
The Calgary fans also got into the act in the final minutes, littering the ice with sodas, hats and paper. Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold, the 2002 Hobey Baker award winner at Minnesota, was reminded of an NCAA game at North Dakota in which the final 10 seconds were played with debris on the ice.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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