The infernal flames are still burning. By the sleight of their goalie's hand and the stoutness of their hearts, the Calgary Flames barged into San Jose and won the first game of the Western Conference final, 4-3 in overtime on Sunday, in a paean to the implausible. They allowed a 1980s-like 52 shots; their star forward had one shot in his 25 minutes on the ice; their defensemen handled the puck as if it were ticking; their centers were picked clean on almost every critical face-off; and they squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2—all of which made it a game the Flames had no right winning.� Of course as Calgary coach and general manager Darryl Sutter likes to say, "Every time somebody says we can't, we can."
Already this postseason the sixth-seeded Flames have upset the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks and the top-ranked Detroit Red Wings with an unrelenting physical style that Sharks coach Ron Wilson called "merciless" before this series. Yet as hellish as Calgary is to play against, the Flames are charmed with an adolescent innocence. After Sunday's win, in which their four goals were scored by three players who had combined for 12 during the regular season, they sat around the visitors' dressing room and sang along with Ring of Fire. Badly.
The Flames may or may not win their first Stanley Cup since 1989, but they will at least earn their varsity letters. Being around this team is like revisiting your high school locker room. The Flames have even less pretension than payroll. ( Calgary's $35.2 million at the start of the season was 19th among 30 NHL teams.) Following victories, the Flames butcher Johnny Cash ( left wing Marcus Nilson started that practice after arriving in March) and yell a sophomoric cheer led by right wing Shean Donovan. They also award a hard hat to the most diligent player of the game. The idea is not original—except that in Calgary the player actually wears it for postgame interviews. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who had made a season-high 49 saves, including a dozen of the circus variety, wore the hat after Game 1 and looked like a Village People refugee.
This is a team so spiritually close to its fans that it does not play before home crowds as much as it is the focus of a neighborhood watch. The homeyness is manifest in the more than 20,000 Flames flags that have been sold in the past month as well as in the phone call to radio station FAN 960 last Friday from a Flames supporter who said he was driving the 1,000 miles to San Jose and wondered if the talk-show jocks could hook him up with tickets.
While the caller was on the air, Flames center Craig Conroy phoned the show. "Get his particulars," said Conroy, who would score two goals for the first time all season in Game 1. ' "I'll take care of him."
"Craig," the host said, "you can't take care of everybody who needs a ticket."
"I won't. Just this guy."
It was Conroy who introduced the hard hat last October, expropriating it from equipment manager Gus Thorson hours before the first game of the season. The immediate response was, "Green ?" The toxic shade, one that appears nowhere in nature, clashed with Calgary scarlet, but after some initial clucking from the what-not-to-wear set in the room, it has been embraced unreservedly—not only by players but also by fans queuing to buy replicas for about $10.75 at the team store. ("Bad business decision not to patent it," Conroy says with mock chagrin. "I should be getting a cut.")
The hard hat is rarely awarded to the conspicuous Kiprusoff or to MVP-caliber right wing Jarome Iginla, who set up the overtime winner after going without a shot in regulation. It usually goes to industrious souls such as Robyn Regehr, one of the NHL's best defenseman under 25, or opportunistic left wing Martin G�linas, who has a playoff-record three career overtime goals that have ousted opponents, including Vancouver and Detroit this spring. Iginla and Conroy, his linemates, have graced G�linas with a nickname: the Eliminator.
The Flames play honest if not especially artistic hockey—the dominating skills of Iginla (a league-high 41 goals this season) notwithstanding. Calgary typically chips the puck deep, compelling a defenseman to turn his back on the rush, and then it unleashes forecheckers to play bumper cars along the boards in an effort to knock the puck loose and create scoring chances. The Flames may trap on a line change but generally make sure the puckhandler feels more pressure than a slacking senior feels taking the SATs. The approach is similar to that of several teams, including San Jose, but Calgary does it at a high tempo and with enough will-sapping checking to mask middling talent.