Loss a crying shame

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 2:22 PM ET


 TAMPA -- The tears in the players' eyes weren't unlike the ones that filled the Red Mile.

 Two months of the most improbable Stanley Cup run had come to an abrupt end and no one in red was quite sure what to make of it or how to react.

 When the final buzzer sounded, Jarome Iginla stood on his own blueline with his head bowed and stick on his knees.

 Robyn Regehr did the same.

 Steve Montador, Toni Lydman and Krzysztof Oliwa sat slumped on the bench with their heads buried, unable to look at the black, silver and blue euphoria at the far end of the ice. It was there a talented bunch of players from a 12-year-old franchise joined 22,717 frenzied fans for a party the Flames were one goal away from celebrating two nights earlier.

 "This was almost the greatest feeling I ever had and it ends up being the worst," said a stunned Montador.

 "It's that whole risk/reward thing in sports -- you have to give something to get something and we gave it everything we had. It feels like our heart was ripped out.

 "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to swallow."

 In time, each and every one of Darryl Sutter's men will wake up following their two-month dream run with an overwhelming sense of pride, feeling good about the odds they overcame and the joy they brought to a city of almost one million jersey-wearing fans.

 In time, we'll also hear more about the horrible pain and injuries through which this battered bunch played to represent our city so valiantly over a record

 26 games of adrenaline.

 But late last night, it was all the Flames could do to comprehend how a ride as magical as theirs could end in Tampa of all places.

 On the strength of a powerplay that crushed the Flames in the two games that mattered most, the Sunshine Boys beat Canada's Team 2-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

 What's more, the Lightning beat Calgary at its own game, clinging to two Ruslan Fedotenko goals with a defensive effort that limited the visitors to just seven shots in the first two periods before a late third period flurry came up short.

 "In the end, we ran out of gas," said Sutter, admitting something everyone in Calgary feared would eventually happen.

 "Winning Game 5 actually hurt us more than it helped because of the injuries we sustained in it (Regehr's ankle was shot and Shean Donovan sprained his MCL).

 "The longer the series went, the tougher it was going to be. We tried to summon all we could in terms of energy but in the end, they had more legs than we did."

 It was at the tail end of the second, after Fedotenko struck the second time, you could see for the first time the Flames had run out of miracles. While no one gave up, it was clear the Flames weren't about to break through the Lightning's Calgary-like defensive front. The hosts stifled every Flames rush at mid-ice and dumped the puck back towards a suddenly human Miikka Kiprusoff.

 Alas, missing five regulars from their lineup, including Shean Donovan whose knee injury allowed him to take the warmup but prevented him from playing a second straight game, the Flames couldn't come up with the hero they always seemed to find all spring.

 "This is the toughest day of my life," said Ville Nieminen, choking back tears. "But after Game 6 we left the rink as a proud hockey club."

 As they should have.

 Those who point a finger at Iginla and his inability to record a shot fail to realize the intense coverage he drew in each of the last two games. He helped carry his team this far but, in the end, saw a deeper, faster team finish the job.

 While hockey historians will lump this group with also-rans from Minnesota, Anaheim, Buffalo and Florida, Calgarians will remember them much differently. Perhaps Canadians will, too.

 Shortly before Gary Bettman handed the Cup to feel-good story Dave Andreychuk, he saluted the Flames for their gutsy run, eliciting a roar of approval from the crowd.

 For a 12th-ranked team that knocked off the west's three division winners, it would be impossible not to appreciate their efforts.

 Last night, while an arena spewed We Are the Champions as the Stanley Cup was passed from player to player, the Flames did their best to block it all out, swallowing hard after a loss none of them will forget.

 Seven years without playoff hockey and then this, a run for the ages.

 In time, they'll see it that way.

 But last night, forgive them for their view was distorted by tears.


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