- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

CALGARY, Alberta — The Calgary Flames finally showed some heart at home — and now Canada’s team will play for the Cup.

Captain Jarome Iginla scored his 10th playoff goal and the Flames advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals in 15 years with a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game6 of the Western Conference finals last night.

Miikka Kiprusoff made 18 saves for the Flames, whose victory was to clinch the conference championship the first by a home team in the series. The raucous “Red Sea” of fans in the sold-out Saddledome finally had something to cheer as the Flames took an early lead and hung on through a scoreless third period.

Martin Gelinas also put the puck in the net for the sixth-seeded Flames, who will open their fourth straight playoff series on the road Tuesday, either at Tampa Bay or Philadelphia.

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.

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 their 104-point regular season and home-ice advantage in every round.

The teams tied an NHL record with road victories in each of the first five games of the series, so the Flames stayed in a hotel Tuesday night in an attempt to replicate road conditions. It must have worked: Calgary took an early lead and never lost it despite a strong third-period push by the Sharks, who just couldn’t beat Kiprusoff.

The Sharks pulled their goalie in the final minute, 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 and it went the length of the ice.

Evgeni 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 work ethic.

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. Iginla leads the playoffs with 16 points, and his leadership has been just as important for his young club.

Iginla’s goal was set up by Curtis Brown’s high-sticking penalty, and Gelinas’ goal was caused by yet another lapse in discipline for the Sharks. Rookie Marcel Goc won a faceoff but failed to tie up Craig Conroy, who sneaked past him and passed to Gelinas for his sixth goal of the playoffs.

Three minutes later, McCauley scored San Jose’s first goal in approximately 118 minutes — but that was it for the Sharks, who scored 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 the Maple Leafs or the Oilers to Calgary’s band of overachievers 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 flinty coach wore a broad smile after his team clinched his first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Notes — 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. … The Flames were 0-4 at home games when the team handed out the noisemaking ThunderStix, so they decided not to give them away before Game 6. … Aerosmith, in town for a show Thursday, watched the game from a luxury suite. … Calgary improved to 10-1 in the playoffs when scoring the first goal.

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