CALGARY, Alberta (AP) -- The pandemonium began while the puck was still in play, sliding alone toward the tranquility of the San Jose Sharks' unguarded net.
When the final score of the Western Conference finals bisected
the goal line as time expired, the Calgary Flames and their fans
were going too crazy to notice. With one more fantastic finish,
Canada's team had earned the right to play for the Cup.
Captain Jarome Iginla scored his 10th playoff goal as the
Flames advanced to their first Stanley Cup finals in 15 years with
a 3-1 victory over the Sharks in Game 6 Wednesday night.
Miikka Kiprusoff made 18 saves for the Flames, whose victory was
the first by a home team in the series. But Calgary's "Red Sea"
finally had something to cheer as the Flames took an early lead and
hung on through the third period.
Calgary missed the playoffs in each of the previous seven
seasons before a young roster, a new coach and an otherworldly
goalie put together one of the most improbable playoff runs in
recent history -- and it's not over yet.
"You never know when this opportunity is going to come again in
your life," said Iginla, who leads the playoffs with 17 points.
"You'd like to think it's going to happen every year ... but we
know that's not the case. You have to grab it when it comes."
The Sharks pulled goalie Evgeni Nabokov in the final minute of a relentless third-period attack, but the Flames' Robyn Regehr was credited with a goal with one second left after San Jose's Alex Korolyuk attempted to pass the puck from behind the Calgary net.
It went the length of the ice, settling into the net while the
Flames threw their sticks and gloves in the air.
Martin Gelinas, twice an overtime hero in series-clinching
games, also put the puck in the net for the sixth-seeded Flames,
who will open their fourth straight playoff series on the road
Gelinas scored the eventual winning goal in the second period.
"[Overtime goals] are too hard on my heart," he said. "It was
good to get it out of the way early. ... When we started the
season, we knew we had a gritty team that worked hard, and our goal
was to make the playoffs. To say that we were going to get the
Stanley Cup, that's hard to believe."
Calgary hasn't been in the NHL's final round since winning the
Stanley Cup in 1989 -- and the Canadian anthem will be sung in the
finals for the first time since Vancouver made it in 1994. A
Canadian team hasn't won the Cup since Montreal's victory in 1993.
The party spilled out into the streets in Calgary, where
thousands of fans honked horns, waved banners and turned the
popular 17th Avenue entertainment district into a parking lot.
Alyn McCauley scored for San Jose, but the best season in
franchise history ended with back-to-back losses in the Sharks'
first appearance in the conference finals. San Jose also lost its
final four home games of the playoffs, running out of energy and
focus despite its 104-point regular season and home-ice advantage
in every round.
"We just didn't have good luck this time," said center Vincent Damphousse, whose career with the Sharks probably is over. "We've got a lot of breaks in the playoffs, but I guess our luck just ran out."
Nabokov made 27 saves but lost again to Kiprusoff, his former
backup. Kiprusoff arrived in Calgary in a trade last November, and
the Flames haven't been the same -- they've been good enough to roar
past every Western team with a low-budget roster and an impeccable
"You never pictured this in your wildest dreams," said Craig Conroy, whose steal of a second-period faceoff set up Gelinas' goal. "Everything about this season has just been too good to be true."
The Flames had more jump from the opening faceoff, narrowly
missing several scoring chances before Iginla walked in on Nabokov
for a power-play goal with 93 seconds left in the first period.
Three minutes after Conroy assisted on Gelinas' goal, McCauley
scored San Jose's first goal in approximately 118 minutes -- but
that was it for the Sharks, who scored just once in the final seven
periods of the series.
Though coach Darryl Sutter rejects the idea of his team
representing the nation, try telling that to millions of proud
Canadian hockey fans who have transferred their allegiances from
for the spring.
And never mind that the Flames have a Finnish goalie and two
Americans in their regular starting lineup, or that every NHL team
has a roster crowded with Canadians: They prefer to root for the
home team in the Great White North.
And Sutter never would acknowledge any satisfaction in
dispatching the team that fired him just 17 months ago -- but the
coach wore a broad smile after his team clinched his first trip to
the Stanley Cup finals.
After taking a 3-0 lead on the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs, the Sharks lost six of their final nine postseason games. ... Aerosmith, in town for a show Thursday, watched the game from a luxury suite.