Is fifteen years of humiliation finally enough to lift "The Curse?"
To this day, Vancouver GM Brian Burke will scream at the top of his lungs that Calgary's Joel Otto deliberately turned his foot to direct a Jim Peplinski shot past Kirk MacLean for a Game 7 overtime winner, pushing the Flames to an eventual Stanley Cup championship in 1989.
Considering the previously hapless Canucks had been pasting the previously invincible Flames throughout much of that nail-biting overtime session, with only goaltender Mike Vernon saving the Flames from another ignominious defeat, one might assume Calgary used all the luck, past, present and yes, future, to pull out all the stops to climb out of the first round, selling its soul for a championship so to speak.
Since then, one wonders where all the good fortune has gone, sucked out of this franchise like a government sponsorship program creating a black hole in taxpayer pockets.
Pick any multiple ways a team might imaginably lose a playoff series and the Flames have probably done it, now 15 years removed from its last post-season success.
How can you observe Calgary having only one win in its last 11 playoff overtime games and not recognize a curse when you see it?
How could a team leading 3-1 in a series possibly lose three consecutive overtime games, two on home ice, the cords of the parachute wrapping around its collective neck in an ultimate choke?
The Flames have started six consecutive playoffs, both as an underdog and an overdog, with an almost immediate deficit, losing the opening game like clockwork, 5-3 to LA in 1990, 3-1 to Edmonton in 1991, 6-3 to LA in 1993, 5-0 to Vancouver in 1994, 5-4 to San Jose in 1995 and 4-1 to Chicago in 1996.
The last time a Calgary team won the first game of a playoff series was the Stanley Cup final round in 1989. Yes, that 15 year thing again.
Perhaps it was because they came so close to breaking the curse so often in all those Game 7's that the final indignity was to force seven consecutive years out of the playoffs, ensuring "close" wasn't even an option.
And so we begin anew, the playoffs once again, surprising most pundits who had predicted yet another cursed season.
Does this magical campaign recently stored in the history books mean The Curse has finally been lifted? Will the Flames win their first playoff series in 15 years?
Geez, will they do it in Game 7 overtime?
The comparables lie below:
GOALTENDING - One of the great myth's generated surrounding Miikka Kiprusoff is that he was hauling Calgary out of trouble on a nightly basis.
In truth, he faced an average of 25.4 shots per game and faced 25 or fewer shots in 21 of his 38 starts and 30 or more shots only 10 times. In games where he faced 30 or more shots, he was 4-4-1-1, barely scraping .500.
In short, Kiprusoff is as much a product of the team in front of him as he is a story in himself.
The one aspect of his game separating him from the rest of the pack this season was the fact you could count on one hand, and probably have a few fingers left over, the number of questionable goals he allowed this year. As with most quality NHL goaltenders, the only thing you can ask is that your man stop every shot he should stop as well as a few of the unstoppable ones. And Kiprusoff accomplished that task with near robot-like efficiency, which is how he managed to emerge with eight 2-1 decisions in his favour as well as two 1-0 shutouts not to mention a modern day record for goals against average.
He was flawless. Literally. As was the team in front of him on many nights.
Dan Cloutier had a decent regular season for a strong team, his .915 save percentage ranking 11th among 30 goaltenders appearing in 40 or more games. Yet we all know this has never been about Cloutier in the regular season, that it's now all about the fiery netminder ranking at the bottom of the barrel among playoff goaltenders the last two seasons, 15th and dead last with an .868 save percentage in 2003 and 19th and dead last with an .870 save percentage in 2002.
The pressure in this series is entirely on Cloutier and, if he wants some company, GM Brian Burke as well for sticking by him.
Barring the consequences of the Bertuzzi fiasco, this is a Canucks team that would have been and might still be good enough to go all the way to the Stanley Cup final. But it could all come undone in net. All Calgary wants to do is get inside this guy's head before he can establish a rhythm.
Advantage - Calgary
DEFENCE - Darryl Sutter has held a fascination with puck moving defencemen from the moment he arrived in Calgary, his various experiments in this area either via former GM Craig Button or through himself as a successor providing ample evidence of that fact.
The goal has been to provide daunting team speed by using skill from the backline and while Sutter has been largely successful in creating that vision there shouldn't be much doubt that what Calgary might have in that regard is duplicated to excess on the Vancouver blueline.
As a unit, the Calgary defence corp is more than adequate, the key components receiving the most ice time, like Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Toni Lydman, also happening to have the most talent. With Lydman questionable, however, and Vancouver bringing a full six pack to the fore, led by perennial All-Star Ed Jovanovski and skilled two way men like Mattias Ohlund, the Canucks have to be given the edge.
While Sutter has been preaching all year that Calgary defencemen need to jump into the play in the offensive zone, Vancouver's corps of blueliners have needed no such encouragement, ranking among the league leaders in goals scored from that position.
However, this isn't all one-sided.
Calgary is a team very deliberately constructed to concentrate on the prevention of goals while Burke will readily tell anyone willing to listen the Canucks spent much of the year in a run and gun mode. The Flames have one of the more physically punishing defence groupings in the league and, with the support of a dedicated group of forwards, are very, very good at doing the things that have made the Flames a 42 win team this year.
In recent weeks, in the absence of Todd Bertuzzi, the Canucks have also been pulling in their horns a bit, playing more of a defensive style. That may or may not take some of the offensive flair away from their blueline.
Still, Canucks have the advantage here, in depth if nothing else, particularly if Lydman comes up lame for Calgary.
FORWARDS - Vancouver scored almost half a goal per game more than Calgary through the regular season so its only natural to give an advantage here to the Canucks.
Yet most observers seem to be underrating Calgary's ability to generate secondary offense. Calgary's top three goal scorers still listed for action accounted for 38% of its overall total while Vancouver's top three forwards, still playing, accounted for 32% of their offence.
In spite of the closeness of those numbers, it almost goes without saying the Canucks wouldn't be put out if they were trying to win games 4-3 or 5-4 while the Flames are more likely to favour their chances of success in games ending 3-2 or a 2-1.
In fact, in games where Calgary limited opponents to two or fewer goals this season they were 41-8-3-3. In games where opponents scored three or more times, Calgary was 1-21-4-1.
Run and gun will not be Calgary's game. It can't be. They'll lose if it is.
The Flames forward corps, along with its defence, is designed to play in low scoring, grinding games, putting pressure on opponents with an aggressive forecheck and crowding the crease for the occasional bauble, not an atypical scheme in today's NHL.
In that vein, the Flames have more depth than its given credit for through four lines, players dedicated to the specific jobs they were brought to Calgary for and generating formidable team speed and aggressive pressure that causes all sorts of havoc and chances that even those with stone hands should be able to cash in on occasion.
Calgary is best described as a team that is a sum of its parts, where the parts are devalued when examined away from the whole.
Vancouver, on the other hand, has more traditional talent, the run and gun, creative sort. On talent alone and in depth, Vancouver easily trumps Calgary lines one through four, yet a lot of that talent tends to perform to a lower level in the playoffs if history is any guide.
Of course, in Calgary, with no history in eight years, there is no guide at all.
Different styles, different roles, but Vancouver has the edge. But less of an edge than their fans give them credit for.
SPECIAL TEAMS - Vancouver exemplifies one of those oddball mysteries in hockey, the talented team with a mediocre power play. The Canucks are ranked 22nd with the extra man while the Flames were 21st, a veritable statistical dead heat, with no apparent advantage to either.
In turn, there isn't much of a statistical difference in their penalty killing stats, Vancouver with an 86.1% kill rate and Calgary at 84.7%, the Canucks typically killing more opportunities than the Flames in a single game.
The real problem for Calgary may well come if Stephane Yelle is unable to suit up, their chief penalty killer and a premier faceoff man for the important draws in their own zone.
In San Jose, Sutter considered his third line centre, Mike Ricci, his most important, the man he used to control the tempo of a game. He views Yelle in the same light . . . . . and may not have him, a potentially fatal loss if no one else can step into the role.
Barring health issues, no advantage to either.
COACHING - Marc Crawford has done an excellent job in Vancouver and in particular recently, rallying his troops into a more defensive style and re-focussing their attention after the demoralizing events surrounding the Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident. This is a very good team that is believing again and may in fact, be more focussed and capable than the one Crawford had before Bertuzzi was exiled.
For Calgary, the wily Darryl Sutter hasn't got the Cup ring Crawford does but he has plenty of post-season experience and is, pure and simple, the focus, the overall leader in a way Crawford can't be for a Calgary team entering the post-season for the first time in seven seasons.
While Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Rhett Warrener will be the on-ice stewards for the Flames, the push, the drive is likely to come from the bench simply because that is where most of the experience lies.
It would suit Sutter just as well if Iginla emerges from this playoff year as the defacto leader of this franchise.
Advantage Vancouver - Crawford has the Cup ring and the whole leadership thing works better if it's on the ice, not the bench.
INTANGIBLES - In today's NHL, particularly at playoff time, the team concept becomes all the more important and, without a doubt, proven over and over again, "team" can certainly trump "talent" in any given series.
There's one more thing, something as old as the hair on gramma's chest, the thought that "defence wins championships" that hasn't changed much in 50 years.
Although Vancouver has more outright talent than Calgary, the Flames might be bringing the more proven team defence to the table, which in turn is the great equalizer.
On the flip side, the Canucks have been here before, playoff savvy showing up throughout their lineup, although in the case of their goaltender, the only playoff experience he has is with choking when it counts which means his post-season experience might be more of a liability than a help.
We like Vancouver's overall talent level. We like their depth advantage. We don't like Calgary's injuries, which has pushed them right to the edge. We wonder about the employment of several rookies in Calgary's lineup, knowing its necessary but knowing they have to be relied upon as well.
We like Calgary's moxy. Advantage Calgary.
CALLING THE SERIES - The Canucks should win this series.
They have more talent. They have more depth. Their coach is a fairly bright lad with a Stanley Cup ring. They've been through adversity and toughened up and re-focussed ahead of the post-season.
All those things.
Yet the majority of pundits seem to think of the eight series starting the 2003-2004 post-season, this is the one ripe for an upset.
Could those doubts arise out of the fact the Canucks will be relying on a goaltender that has proven numerous times he will fold like a cheap tent at midnight when things got hot?
No, that wouldn't be enough.
Pundits aren't devaluing the Canucks so much as they're giving credit to the other side.
Calgary has been playing playoff hockey for 82 games now, tested and passing the test through a horrific, potentially season-killing road schedule in the final months of the season, in fact passing most of those individual tests with colours still flying from the mast.
They're one of the best defensive teams in hockey, a gritty, aggressive bunch who are miserable to play against, who don't mind the close, pressure games they must engage in to win. They had the best statistical goalie in hockey the last season and they have the only Rocket Richard Trophy winner in this playoff.
If Vancouver plays a wit below its abilities, if it relies on talent alone, if Cloutier falters as he has done so often in the past, the Canucks will endure another early and bitter post-season exit.
But I'll still go with the obvious choice in this one. Vancouver should win this series. In seven.