Final frontier

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 1:16 PM ET


 It was barely above a whisper amid the post-game celebration but Dave Lowry's words resonated for all.

 "What really makes this special," the Green Hard Hat recipient said, "is nobody would have thought this at the beginning of the season.

 "Nobody."

 It's now there in black and white for all to see.

 The Calgary Flames are victors over three regular-season division champs.

 The Calgary Flames are Western Conference champions.

 The Calgary Flames are off to the Stanley Cup final.

 Thanks to last night's 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks before a raucous Saddledome gathering of 19,289, the Flames clinched the Western Conference final by a 4-2 count.

 They're the first Canadian-based team to reach the championship round since Vancouver in 1994 and it's their first return to the big dance since claiming the Cup in 1989.

 The next opponent in this improbable playoff run will be the Tampa Bay Lightning or Philadelphia Flyers.

 The final starts Tuesday in the east.

 "I hadn't even thought about (the Stanley Cup final)," said GM-head coach Darryl Sutter, who beat the team that fired him a year and a half ago to reach his first Cup final as a player or coach.

 Precisely where those thoughts belong.

 Last night was for enjoying the moment.

 For realizing how far the Flames have come.

 After all, the franchise hadn't won a playoff series since defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the '89 final, the last all-Canadian showdown.

 Until this spring, the franchise hadn't made the playoffs since 1996.

 Last night, the city celebrated what, for so long, seemed impossible.

 "It's an incredible feeling," said Flames winger Shean Donovan.

 "I'm going to remember this forever."

 So will Jarome Iginla, the man who waited eight years between NHL playoff games and has made the most of his return to the post-season party.

 Goal No. 10 of these playoffs opened the scoring late in the first period and his game concluded by hoisting the Clarence Campbell Bowl, representing Western Conference supremacy.

 There were no victory laps -- he skated right to the room with it -- but it's a far cry from teams in the past that barely gave the trophy a second thought.

 "I never been in that situation," said the captain. "We're not a superstitious team, I guess. We're very proud of it, very proud to be in the conference finals and the things that have gone on this year. But we wanted to go to the room and do some things in there.

 "We're closer and even hungrier."

 Martin Gelinas posted the eventual winner -- the third straight series his goal has made the difference -- and Robyn Regehr rounded it out with an empty-netter.

 Alyn McCauley scored San Jose's lone goal late in the second but all that did was create a tension-filled final 20 minutes -- when the Flames held on for dear life -- and provide even more excitement when the buzzer finally sounded.

 Which set off a party that can only be eclipsed by one more series victory.

 "Hopefully there's one more division champ we can beat," said Chris Clark.

 "That would be the ultimate."


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