Flames' formula is working

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

These illogical, any-game-now-the-bubble-will-burst teams do tend to be a rite of spring in the NHL, don't they? If it isn't the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim riding Jean-Sebastien Giguere one year, it's the Carolina Hurricanes turning North Carolina into hockey country (at least for a few weeks) another.

But this deal with Calgary – these won't go away, won't stop skating, won't stop hitting Flames – just feels different.

First, Calgary is a real underdog, a decidedly small market in the NHL and stuck with the Canadian dollar to boot. Second, it hadn't made the playoffs since 1996. Third, its improbable story includes an offensive star who is black, a journeyman goaltender who closed out the mighty Detroit Red Wings with back-to-back shutouts and a patented style of winning that has been a boon to business for cardiologists in Alberta.

"It's what we've been doing," center Craig Conroy said. "We steal games."

Add Sunday's 4-3 overtime (what else?) Western Conference finals-opening victory over the San Jose Sharks as the latest triumph. Game 2 is Tuesday.

But what really makes this dream run unique is when the Flames are doing it. This has turned into an era-changing spring for the NHL. We are in the Final Four and there is no Peter Forsberg, no Steve Yzerman and no Scott Stevens left. No Colorado, no Detroit, no New Jersey. The three teams that captured eight of the last nine Stanley Cups are home watching on television.

This has created a sense that anything is possible. You always knew Anaheim and Carolina and the rest of the past upstarts were going to run into an entrenched superpower eventually and get a dose of reality.

But not this time. Not this year.

Someone unlikely is going to win the Cup – whether it is the Philadelphia Flyers rewarding their loyal fans, the Tampa Bay Lightning riding Martin St. Louis or San Jose finally capitalizing on its immense potential.

Or perhaps even the Calgary Flames, who are so infuriating to play against that even after being eliminated, opponents aren't so sure they weren't the better team.

"I'm not disappointed in anything other than the result," said San Jose coach Ron Wilson on Sunday, sounding a lot like Marc Crawford (Vancouver) and Dave Lewis (Detroit) before him. "We'll play the same way next game, take our chances." You can't blame Wilson for the optimism. San Jose outshot Calgary 52-37 and dominated the overtime period until some guy named Steve Montador won it for the Flames.

But this is what Calgary does.

The Flames win tight games (eight playoff victories have been by one goal). They weather the storm in overtime and then pounce (five extra-session victories). They steal games on the road (six wins away from home).

It is not exactly the text-book strategy for advancement. But at this point, there is no need to mess with what is working.

"Every time someone says we can't, we can," Flames coach Darryl Sutter said.

Calgary's payroll is a humble US$35.2 million (Detroit's was $77.8 million). It needed a late-season surge just to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years. It took a Game 7 overtime victory at Vancouver to capture its first series since 1989, when the Flames won the Stanley Cup.

The star in the making is Jarome Iginla, the do-it-all forward who is tied for the lead in scoring during the playoffs. The son of a racially mixed marriage, Iginla grew up outside Edmonton watching hockey's pioneer black player, Grant Fuhr, with the Edmonton Oilers and believing that no matter his skin color, he had every right to strive for a spot in the NHL.

He has been excellent for the last eight seasons but has hardly been a household name while playing for Calgary. A Hart Trophy finalist this season, he is now.

"There's maybe a few more autograph seekers," he admitted.

Then there is Miikka Kiprusoff, the Finnish goalie who entered the season with all of 14 career regular-season victories. He has turned into a nightly first-star selection, and his lock-the-door close out of the Wings was straight legend.

Then, well, who knows after that? With teams spending so much time worrying about Iginla, a new hero is born every night. There is Martin Gelinas, who owns two series-clinching overtime winners. There is Conroy, the low-scoring 11-year veteran who had the game-winner in the critical Game 5 at Detroit.

And there is Montador, the defensive-minded defenseman who, until nailing the game-winner Sunday, had all of three goals in three seasons.

What does it feel like being a hero, he was asked after.

"My teammates would laugh at that question," he said.

Keep laughing. Some team has to win this thing. And it isn't going to be one of the usual suspects.

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