Canucks in driver's seat

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:29 PM ET


 VANCOUVER -- At this point in time, the Curse of the Cup is the least of the Calgary Flames' concerns.

 Having squandered their seventh-straight series-clinching opportunity Saturday with a heartbreaking 5-4 loss in triple OT, the club now finds itself a serious underdog for tonight's Game 7.

 The chances of erasing 15 years of playoff futility -- brought on by becoming the only team to win a Stanley Cup in hockey's sacred Montreal Forum -- are much slimmer than they were 48 hours earlier when the Flames held a distinct advantage.

 Despite showing tremendous character to battle back from a four-goal deficit to send Game 6 into extra time, the eventual loss came at a heavy cost.

 Having already lost Toni Lydman to a concussion earlier in the series, the Flames will now have to do without the services of Denis Gauthier who tore his knee in the third period.

 While Steve Montador is a dependable replacement, he does little to instill the fear the hard-hitting Gauthier does. It also puts pressure on Calgary's top four defencemen to log even more ice time.

 Stephane Yelle left the game for a spell due to injury as did Martin Gelinas -- both showing obvious signs of discomfort and loss of speed as the game progressed. Matthew Lombardi, arguably the Flames best forward early in the series, has also been slowed by a knee injury suffered when blocking a shot in Game 5.

 The only Canucks injury was to goalie Dan Cloutier.

 All of these circumstances favour the Canucks, who started the series much deeper and will benefit from the injuries and fatigue involved with playing more than 100 minutes Saturday.

 The Canucks can continue to focus on their game centring around speed and skill while the banged-up Flames have gotten away from the physical pounding they delivered so effectively all year and early in the series. The Flames stopped punishing the opposition Saturday, which led to an early 4-0 Canucks lead.

 Given their depleted ranks and physical state, it will be hard for the Flames to focus on finishing checks.

 The Canucks obviously handled their nerves better the other night, perhaps drawing from their experience last year when they battled back from a 3-1 deficit against St. Louis. The Flames have no such experience to fall back on.

 Vancouver's powerplay still dominates Calgary's, which is particularly relevant given the tight officiating and Calgary's penchant for penalties throughout the series.

 Momentum is squarely in the hands of the Canucks, who will combine that with home-ice advantage and final line changes to create an atmosphere tonight that will likely see the Flames simply trying to weather the storm the first ten minutes.

 Then again, maybe this is just the way the Flames like it.

 Few expected the team to end a seven-year playoff absence let alone snap a 15-year history of first-round flops. Their rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule so in some ways they've got nothing to lose.

 Perhaps overlooked is the fact the Flames were the league's most resilient bunch, posting an incredible record following losses.

 They've done well to nullify the Canucks' home-ice advantage by winning two of three at GM Place, they have the better netminder, they have the better game-breaker and the better coach.

 Most importantly, they've proven to have the bigger hearts -- often the difference in such high-stakes games.

 They don't get any bigger than this for either club but it's the Canucks, not the Flames, who now carry the burden of expectations.

 Vancouver police will be out in droves tonight in full riot gear, expecting the worst if Marc Crawford's crew falls miserably short once again of the lofty goals this team established through four years of stellar regular seasons.

 The only thing certain is there will be heartache on one side of the Rockies or the other.

 It said in this space a few weeks back the Flames would win this in seven. It might not make much sense at this point but, then, the sports world rarely does: Flames 3-2 in overtime.


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