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Monday, May 31, 2004
Flames beaten by their own style

By Eric Adelson
Special to ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- Darryl Sutter's an honest Alberta farmboy, so he should know: You reap what you sow.

The Calgary Flames reached the Stanley Cup finals by taking a toll. They won every single game by wanting it more, by being nastier, by punishing. But the problem with punishing is that it can go too far. Monday night, in their 1-0 Game 4 loss, it did.

Chris Clark's first-period crosscheck on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Nolan Pratt was extraneous, and it cost his team the game's only goal. Ville Nieminen's brutal boarding penalty was egregious, and it may cost the Flames much more. Finally, Sutter's toll-taking style has taken a toll of its own.

So never mind that the Flames won every single intangible aspect of Monday's Game 3: faceoffs, board battles, scoring chances, hits. Never mind that they played a Sutter-style game, running roughshod over the head-swiveling Lightning. Never mind that a couple of accurate shots could have justified the borderline penalties. "We bury our chances," said Clark, "and it's not a factor." That little bit extra Sutter demands simply became a little bit much.

Can you blame Sutter and his style? Tough to say. The Flames had the Lightning reeling for most of Game 4, after shaking their will in Game 3 with a highlight reel of clean and ferocious hits. Tampa looked rattled and, at times, timid. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Flames would tie the score and use the subsequent lift to ground the Lightning and take a 3-1 series lead. But time ran out when Nieminen was given five minutes for planting Vincent Lecavalier's head into the glass with 4:13 left in the game.

Can you blame Sutter for playing Krzysztof Oliwa? Not when the mighty winger stokes the crowd with a sternum-bending hit on the oft-threatening Dmitry Afanasenkov, but yes when he takes a momentum-halting penalty by rag-dolling Dan Boyle into the boards in the second period. Sutter brought Oliwa to Calgary for his toughness -- he told the winger as much -- so it's pointless to ask him to find that fine line between tough and foolish.

Then there's Nieminen. The flying Finn was brilliant in the first period, firing a dangerous slapper that nearly beat Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, and then retreating for a Selke-worthy backcheck. But the hit on Lecavalier -- from behind, forearm high -- was unforgivable. Nieminen said he had no intent to injure the Lightning's best player, but he showed no let-up as he delivered the blow. He never does.

Can you blame Sutter? Sure. Does he care? No. Will he rethink his style? No. Will he show remorse? Never. Keep in mind, Sutter sent Oliwa out at the end of an out-of-reach regular-season game against Nashville, and disagreed when an ensuing brawl resulted in a suspension. Sutter is everything that's wrong with hockey, or everything that's right with hockey, depending on the opinion and the outcome. Like Nieminen, Sutter is what he is.

"A penalty in the second shift, not a penalty in the third period," Sutter said plainly after Game 4. "Whatever."

And the Nieminen hit? "It's called a five-minute penalty because they react to the player going down. It's a two-minute penalty."

Not quite. Nieminen is not dirty, but his hit was. "You saw the play," said Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella. "I don't need to say anything about it."

So expect more of the same in Game 5. Sutter really has no choice but to keep pushing down on the physical throttle. The Lightning have better finishers and superb two-way defenders. If the Flames do not seek to crush Tampa's pinching blueliners, or "look for a train wreck" in the words of Calgary assistant coach Jim Playfair, they will lose this series.

Asked after the game whether there might be a downside to Sutter's aggressive, heat-seeking style, Calgary captain Jarome Iginla could only be the honest Alberta man he is:

"Well," Iginla said, "it got us this far."

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.