NHL's leading men

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:29 PM ET


 Could the lean, mean Flames -- everybody's Stanley Cup longshot -- morph into fat and sassy favourites with a 2-0 lead?

 "With our team? Not a chance," insists head coach Darryl Sutter, arriving home from San Jose with a snazzy pair of wins to go with that California tan.

 "It doesn't matter, our game doesn't change. It doesn't matter where we're at in the series, if we're up or down or what round we're in. Our mindset stays the same."

 That outlook, just as it was after earning Game 1 and 2 splits on the road against Vancouver and Detroit, is to out-work the opponent, earning every win with 20 guys all buying into the program.

 That's just what Sutter's troops achieved in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference final in the Golden State, winning 4-3 and 4-1 to assume control of the series with the next two contests under the Saddledome tonight (8 p.m., CBC) and Sunday (2 p.m., CBC).

 "For us," says winger Shean Donovan, "it doesn't even feel close to being up 2-0 -- it doesn't feel like anything has been done. It's just now we have to play Game 3."

 That's just what the coach wants to hear.

 "It's almost the same thing over and over all year," Sutter lectures about sticking to his carefully arranged game plan.

 "It's not going to change (regardless) of what anybody thinks or (if they) think we will be different or should be different. Our guys have a good handle on it and it's not going to bother them."

 However, Flames blueliner Andrew Ference admits coming home with the series lead puts a little extra pressure on the club.

 "I don't think anybody's going to complain. We've worked hard for it," he says.

 "It's tough to look at a 2-0 series lead and a home crowd as an obstacle but, in a certain way, it is one of those mental preparation things that you have to do."

 Sutter's overachieving upstarts are defying the odds but insist they can be and must better when the Sharks visit the 'Dome tonight.

 "The finals are a long ways off," assistant captain Craig Conroy warns.

 "They're two wins away for us and the Sharks believe it's four wins away for them. They're going to come out and want to redeem themselves. They're going to feel like they can win two in our building because we won two in their building.

 "That's where we've got to match the challenge. If we get that third (win), then the pressure's really on them.

 "So this is the biggest game of our lives for a lot of us."

 Surprise wins over the Canucks and Wings before grabbing two games from the jaws of the Sharks has some wondering about destiny.

 Has a power greater than Sutter already started chiselling their names into Lord Stanley's silver chalice, reducing the Sharks and the next round's opponent to helpless foils with front-row seats to a fated finale?

 "I don't know about destiny but, coming into the playoffs, I don't think anybody on the inside looked at it as if there was a favourite anywhere," Sutter said.

 "Regardless of what happened during the regular season, it's pretty much an even playing field."

 In January, the Flames' only target was to play in April, ending seven seasons of futility and despair.

 Some fans just wanted to live long enough to witness two playoff games at home, fodder for a summer full of memories of a glorious post-season appearance while providing a glimmer of hope for the future.

 Now the stakes have been raised as the ultimate goal is almost within reach. And everyone inside the dressing room is a believer.

 "I don't think you get to this point without believing in yourselves," Sutter surmises.

 "That's been the mantra all along: Not to let everybody else or anybody else or anything else get in the way of what they want to do. It didn't mean they'd (necessarily) get to this point but they certainly didn't make the playoffs without believing in themselves, believing in how they had to play and how they wanted to play."

 And believe it or not, it's happening.


Videos

Photos