Monday, April 19, 2004
Game 7: An act of attrition
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Expect the unexpected.
"In this series," murmured corrosive irritant Ville Nieminen (nickname: Nemo), "nothing is for certain. It's been here, there and everywhere. You can't get a read on it. It's great for you guys to write about, it's great for people to watch -- full money's worth."
Finding Nemo won't be a problem. This guy's got a maniacal smile of the width and breadth not seen since Cesar Romero's Joker caricature on the '60s
Batman TV series. Just look for Nieminen yapping in Markus Naslund's face tonight or trying to carve a second bellybutton into Martin Rucinsky's midriff when a ref's back is turned.
No, Nemo will be easy to find. But finding strength and finding resolve may be a bit of a challenge for a Calgary Flames team that's beaten-up and worn down.
Game 7 of a biting, bitter, backstabbing Canucks-Flames series is tonight at GM Place, where the towels will be whipping and the atmosphere will be explosive. On the heels of Saturday night's triple-overtime win by the Canucks, courtesy of the tenacious Brendan Morrison, the favorites of this tussle that began 12 days ago are in that position again.
Calgary, meanwhile, is busy redecorating with spit and baling wire.
Add bone-crunching defenseman Denis Gauthier to an injury list that already includes Chris Simon, Toni Lydman, Dean McAmmond and Steve Reinprecht. According to official propaganda, Gauthier is being bothered by a "lower-body" injury, which in playoff jargon could mean anything from a slightly sprained knee to amputation.
He certainly didn't look in the pink of health hobbling off Saturday after stapling chattering Finn Jarkko Ruutu into the Pengrowth Saddledome woodwork.
Neither, it must be said, do the Flames appear healthy as a whole. They expended an awful lot of precious energy in fighting back from a 4-0 deficit to send Saturday's epic into overtime. And they still couldn't close out the Canucks to advance to the second round for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup a lifetime ago -- or so it seems. That was 1989.
"I thought we showed courage and character," said Calgary coach Darryl Sutter, who throws compliments around with the same reckless abandon that Jack Benny used to toss around $100 bills.
Courage and character are traits Sutter's team has shown all year long. In spades. They've been easier to kill than a bad rumor. But the concern is how many of them have been used up in this series, indeed, in playing playoff-style hockey for 5½ months just to get here.
In the end Saturday, roughly 3:05 a.m. ET, the combatants resembled nothing so much as a couple of Sumo wrestlers, grunting and sweating and pawing madly, crazily away at each other in search of that elusive takedown. Bodies flying, sticks breaking, legs burning.
And to think, they've got to do it again tonight.
That's a lot to ask of a Flames team that was pretty thin going in.
Perhaps the one trump in their deck at this point, however, is that the Joker has proven a consistent wild card in this topsy-turvy, impossible-to-pin-down, seismically-shifting series. Flames down at heel after losing Game 1 on the road? Not exactly. Savvy Canucks in control on the eve of Game 4? Guess again. Flames poised to bring down the ballpean hammer and end a 15-year playoff jinx of getting past the first round after posting back-to-back wins in 4 and 5? Uh, sorry.
"No, nothing's gone as predicted, has it?" winger Chris Clark mused. "Which, I guess, is in our favor right now."
Might just be.
Home ice isn't. Depth isn't. Overall talent isn't. Momentum isn't.
The Canucks have the upper hand in all these apparently vital categories. Center Brendan Morrison has shone in the absence of the suspended Todd Bertuzzi, seeing more of the puck and playing with a nasty streak that many of his contemporaries would be wise to mimic. On Saturday, the APB on Daniel Sedin was answered and he showed up (finally) for his best game of the series. Ditto Geoff Sanderson. Ed Jovanovski continues to be the most consistent Canuck. And untried goalie Alex Auld showed he could stand up to the heat in that triple-overtime, season-extending triumph.
What the Flames can counter with are grit, an unfailing sense of self and Miikka Kiprusoff, capable of stealing this game all by his lonesome.
Still, most signs definitely point to a Vancouver win tonight. And maybe, must maybe, that plays into the Flames' hands. Particularly in a series as consistently unpredictable as this one.
"There's a price to be paid on both sides," said Calgary assistant coach Jim Playfair, subbing for the incommunicado Sutter on Sunday afternoon. "We're excited, we're energized and we're going to have full gas tanks and be ready to go to war. Hey, it's a good situation to be in. It doesn't matter if we play (Game 7) in the back yard.
"What we have to do is concentrate on the process, not the outcome. The process takes care of the outcome. As Darryl told the guys: All the lessons we've learned this year, all the hard work and sacrifice, comes down to this one game. We'd be foolish not give ourselves the best possible chance to win. I think you'll see us concentrated and prepared to play our style.
"We've been a pretty good team on the road all year (21-16-2-2). I think that's certainly in our favor."
Certainly GM Place certainly doesn't intimidate them. Calgary has already won two of three games played there this series, not to mention the last two regular-season collisions between the clubs.
"We've just got to find a way to re-energize," Sutter said on Saturday night, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. "That's what it's all about. It's an attrition thing now."
Yes, it is.
And for those convinced that the overachieving Flames are burned out, used up and ready to be dumped along with the Isles, Blues, Stars, Devils and Predators in the playoff trash can?
"You can't believe how fast you can recover," sneered Nieminen, as only he can, "when you're getting ready for a Game 7."
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.