Flames hope to thrill home fans
CALGARY, Alberta -- Canada is more than ready to celebrate its first Stanley Cup finalist in a decade. For the celebration to start at Game 6, the Calgary Flames will have to do something right at home.
Calgary hosts the San Jose Sharks in a Western Conference finals game Wednesday night with a 3-2 series lead and a wealth of momentum. The Flames have lost both of the series' previous games at the Saddledome, but their eight playoff road victories are two short of the NHL record.
Still, the Flames would prefer to give their fans something to cheer.
"We know how to win at home, but we're playing a very good team," said captain Jarome Iginla, the leading scorer in the playoffs with 16 points. "We've got to find a way to win a tight game, because that's what it's going to be. We love it at home. We'd love to go home and play our best game of the playoffs in front of them."
Flames fans began the season without much reason to suspect it would be any better than the previous 14, which all ended without a title. Instead, a new coach, a young lineup and a rising star in net embarked on a winning season -- and after one of the best road playoff runs in NHL history, they're a win away from the Stanley Cup finals.
And all of Canada seems thrilled by the possibility of having a native team in the final round for the first time since Vancouver made it in 1994. Canada's six teams haven't won a championship since Montreal's last Stanley Cup in 1993, and many fans and media take it personally.
"This is huge for people in Canada," said defenseman Andrew Ference, who sports a tattoo of the Canadian flag on his shoulder. "Our players come from lots of different countries, but once you put on a Canadian team's uniform, everybody supports you -- especially in the playoffs. Even [Edmonton] Oilers fans are behind us right now."
After several years of struggles during which many suggested only the Toronto Maple Leafs were financially capable of competing with the NHL's best teams, five of Canada's six clubs were in the playoffs this spring. Montreal, Toronto and Calgary both made the second round, where the Flames knocked off the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
Still, Calgary is just 3-5 at home in the playoffs -- and San Jose has won five of its last six on the road.
"The red house in Calgary, it's controlled chaos," Flames forward Ville Nieminen said. "If you want to move on in the series, you have to win everywhere. We just haven't had Lady Fortune on our side at home."
The Sharks have lost four straight home games, including an ugly 3-0 defeat in Game 5 on Monday night. Nobody can explain the discrepancy in San Jose's performances, particularly considering the Sharks face only a fraction of the hometown pressure on Canada's team.
It's impossible to go 100 yards in greater Calgary without a reminder of the Flames' playoff run, while downtown San Jose shows almost no signs of appreciation for the Sharks' best season in franchise history. Yet on home ice, the Sharks have frozen up -- particularly in dismal performances in the last two games.
"It's very different from the first two rounds," Sharks center Vincent Damphousse said. "Both teams in our series are prepared to play in any game in any building, no matter how hard it is. ... I believe in momentum during games, but I don't know if it carries on to the next game."
Though both teams pride themselves on their four-line depth and balanced offensive attacks, the last three games were decided by the winning team's first-line scorers.
San Jose's top line of captain Patrick Marleau, Alex Korolyuk and Damphousse accounted for eight points and five of the Sharks' seven goals in the first two games in Calgary. Iginla and Craig Conroy replied with unassisted goals in Game 5.
"Their top line played really well in our building, so we said we've got to do the same thing in here," Conroy said after Game 5. "We don't want to come back here, so we've got to come out at home and play like we do here. Our line just needs to keep doing the things that are working -- forechecking and making good passes."
The Flames also tightened up their defense in Game 5, allowing Miikka Kiprusoff to set a franchise record with his fourth playoff shutout. He faced only 19 shots, few of them dangerous.
"We did a lot better job defensively," defenseman Robyn Regehr said. "If you work a little harder in your own end, the rest of it doesn't seem to be as hard."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press