Mind on big prize


 The Flames were on their heels, the fans stood on their feet and Miikka Kiprusoff stood on his head.

 Now they stand as one, atop the west.

 Punctuating more than a decade of heartache, the Calgary Flames kicked off the biggest street party in city lore by taking yet another improbable step towards the seemingly impossible goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

 An intense 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks puts the Flames in the final. Yes, the final.

 They got there the same way they've done it all year long -- with heart, with grit.

 Clinging desperately to a one-goal lead throughout the final period, the Flames were buoyed by standing ovations every two minutes as they kept up a relentless forecheck that saw them surrender just one shot on goal over the final nine minutes.

 Boiling down to a faceoff in their own zone with 15 seconds left, a deafening roar blanketed the building as Craig Conroy calmly won the draw. With Shean Donovan praying on the bench, others closing their eyes or staring at their feet, the Flames battled on the boards until a centring pass missed a scrum in front and trickled all the way down the ice and into the Sharks net as time expired.

 The bench emptied, with everyone heading towards Kiprusoff. Championship hats were at the ready, as were T-shirts.

 They hugged one another, shook hands with their admirable foes and a few, including Marcus Nilson, urged the crowd to get louder as Ring of Fire fuelled the party.

 A classy Sutter, who will make his first appearance in the finals, stood by the Sharks bench to shake hands with his former troops and then watched as his current captain, Jarome Iginla, was handed a Clarence Campbell Bowl that, quite frankly, means as much as a participation ribbon for grade school dodgeball.

 Having discussed with teammates before the game how he'd handle the trophy most teams ignore, Iginla graciously accepted the mug, refused to raise it in triumph, covered it like a pail of water and scooted straight for the exit with teammates in tow.

 "There's a lot of pressure there, you know," said Iginla of the trophy presentation.

 "I've never been in that situation -- talking to some guys who had -- Gelly, Dave Lowry and Rhett Warrener ... we're not a superstitious team, I guess.

 "Overall, we said we could touch the trophy. We were 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. At the same time, we do realize that as we get even closer we get hungrier."

 So where is the trophy?

 "I don't know."

 Nor does he care.

 Dave Lowry, wearing the green hard hat he so richly deserved as the team's unsung hero, said he didn't know or care where the trophy was. Nor did Steve Montador, Gelinas or anyone else.

 They've got a much bigger trophy on their mind.

 "It's pretty awesome -- you can feel the buzz in the city and everywhere you go," said Gelinas, who potted the third series-winner for a record third straight series.

 "Not only are we representing Calgary but Canada. It's an opportunity that doesn't come very often. We've just got to make the best of it."

 They did it by winning the war on the boards.

 They did it with a commitment to punish, a tenacious forecheck and even grittier defensive play.

 They did it with the Double Doors -- AHL call-ups Montador and Mike Commodore -- seeing powerplay duty. With Oleg Saprykin blocking shots, with Chris Simon beating guys to pucks and with 39-year-old Lowry exhibiting the exuberance of a man half his age.

 Sutter gets the last laugh on the team that fired him, Kiprusoff proves they traded the wrong goalie and the city's largest pre-Stampede party continues.

 "At the start of the season, we knew we had a gritty team and a team that worked hard," said Gelinas. "Our goal was to make the playoffs and, as the season went along, we realized that once we got to the playoffs that we could go a long ways. But to say that we were going to the Cup, you know, it's hard to believe. We believe in each other and the system we have now."

 A lowly sixth seed that clawed its way into the playoffs in the last week of the season will now go into the history books as the first team in NHL lore to beat the top three seeds en route to the final.

 With years of financial and on-ice woes making the ride even sweeter, this bunch is the first Canadian representative in the final in a decade, vying to be the first Canadian Cup winners in 11 years.

 No one would have thought it possible months back.

 No one doubts them anymore.


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