Flames on verge of road record

TAMPA, Fla. -- There is no more hockey-crazed city than Calgary.

For the first time since 1996, the Flames are in the playoffs. When games are on, streets are empty. Bars overflow. Families are glued to TV sets in living rooms and basements. Every car has banners flying, children sport symbolic red afros, and the Saddledome is jam-packed with fans in giveaway red T-shirts, creating a visually arresting sea of scarlet.

But the overwhelming show of support may just be overwhelming for the Flames.

They have a below-average 4-5 record at home in this year's playoffs. Yet they boast a head-scratching 9-2 record on the road after their 4-1 Game 1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup finals. It was Calgary's fifth consecutive road win, besting their own record of four straight set when they last won the Stanley Cup, in 1989. The Flames also pulled to within one victory of matching the NHL record for road wins in a single postseason, posted when the New Jersey Devils won 10 road games en route to the Stanley Cup in 1995 and matched by the Devils when they won the Cup again in 2000.

"I think it's just our preparation on the road has been good all season long," said center Stephane Yelle, who's unassisted tally in the second gave the Flames a 3-0 lead. "In the playoffs, we have stuck together as a team, and when we're on the road, it seems like we're closer and our focus is really good."

No phone calls from friends and family looking for tickets. No hometown TV stations to watch or radio stations to try to ignore. No entourage waiting in the Zamboni tunnel after the game. No outside distractions that come from simply being where they live.

"On the road, all we have to do is go to the hotel and go to the rink," said center Craig Conroy. "It's been great. We get a good feeling going in the first game and we can win the second and then bring that feeling back home."

But that feeling is not supposed to originate in another team's rink, where fans wear a different color, the boards play funny, the ice feels different and every visiting player's name announced over the loudspeaker is followed by a collective "SUCKS!"

To combat the inhospitable road environment, the Flames adhere to the same simple system they use at home. No tricky passes, no elaborate plays. Just easy skate-pass-shoot hockey. And it works.

"It's the same, simple system we used all year long," said right winger Shean Donovan. "And we had a pretty good record at home during the regular season, too."

They were 21-16-2-2 at the Saddledome during the regular season. Good, but luckily not good enough to earn them enough points to secure home ice during the postseason.

"We know being the lower seed that we have to play four out of seven on the road," said Flames coach Darryl Sutter. "We knew coming in that we were going to have to win games on the road."

Sutter's captain, right winger Jarome Iginla, had gotten that point across to his team. In 11 postseason road games, Iginla has seven goals and four assists, for a point-per-game average, and is a plus-nine. At home, he has seven points in nine games.

The Flames have not lost a road game in a month, not since Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings on April 24. If the trend holds on Thursday night, the Flames will carry a 2-0 series lead back to Calgary.

Where they will use their gathered momentum to battle, and hopefully master, that Flame-extinguishing home-ice disadvantage.

The Magazine's Lindsay Berra can be e-mailed at lindsay.berra@espnmag.com.