It was almost 10 years ago when current Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Chuck Kobasew just wrapped up his first full season in the NHL. He was about to embark on a journey with his Calgary Flames teammates that would make the entire hockey world take notice.
During the final leg of the 2003-04 regular season, the Flames fought their way into the sixth spot in the Western Conference. It was quite an achievement for a Calgary team that hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years, but they immediately faced seemingly insurmountable odds in the postseason.
The Flames’ postseason run in 2004 would match them against the top-three teams in the Western Conference before culminating in a Stanley Cup Final matchup against the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With a first-round matchup against Northwest Division champion the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames were considered a long-shot to advance.
It was something they would have to get used to for the entire postseason.
“We were the underdog in every series,” Kobasew said. “Not many people thought we had much of a chance.”
The Flames dropped two out of the first three games to Vancouver in the best-of-seven series and those naysayers were on the verge of being right. But after a 4-0 shutout win in Game 4, the Calgary Flames began to turn heads.
The Flames won two out of the next three games — including a 3-2 Game 7 overtime win — to defeat the Canucks and advance.
But for as many people who didn’t believe the Flames had a chance against Vancouver, even more wrote them off before they faced their second-round opponent — the Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit finished the regular season with 109 points — tops in all of hockey — thanks to a star-studded lineup featuring Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Calgary was led by two stars, captain Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, but other than that carried a lineup full of gritty veterans and eager youngsters.
“We had Jarome and Mikka but we weren’t a bunch of stars and we had to fight all the way down the stretch just to get into the playoffs,” Kobasew said. “Just a bunch of guys that worked real hard.”
On paper, however, it was a mismatch.
But that wasn’t the mindset in the Flames’ locker room.
“We knew Detroit was a team full of Hall of Famers and that people didn’t think we stood a chance,” Kobasew said. “But after we beat Vancouver, we could kind of feel it starting to roll from there.”
The Flames won Game 1 in Detroit, 2-1 in overtime. The dramatic win gave the Calgary players a renewed belief that, just perhaps, they could hang with the Detroit powerhouse.
They did more than that.
With the series tied 2-2 heading into Game 5, the Flames shut out Detroit 1-0 at Joe Louis Arena and wrapped up the series with another 1-0 shutout in overtime at the Saddledome in Calgary.
“No one on our team imagined shutting out Yzerman, Lidstrom and all those guys,” Kobasew said.
Still, things didn’t get any easier in the Western Conference Finals as the Flames faced another division winner in the San Jose Sharks.
An underdog yet again, the Flames promptly traveled to San Jose and won the first two games on the Sharks’ home ice.
Calgary dropped the next two at home, but promptly regrouped for Game 5 in San Jose for a 3-0 win before dispatching the Sharks two days late in Game 6.
“We felt we really had a chance at this. You could just feel the momentum,” Kobasew said of knocking off three division winners to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. “We grinded our way into the playoffs where the other teams had their divisions locked up and may have been on cruise control a bit.”
After the series win over San Jose which allowed the Calgary to clinch the Western Conference, the Flames went against a long-standing superstition when Iginla raised the Campbell Bowl after it was presented on the ice. It is a belief among some NHL players that touching either conference trophy is bad luck because the Stanley Cup is the only trophy that should be hoisted.
But after entering the postseason as an underdog and defeating three of the top teams in the NHL, the superstition was an afterthought.
“By that point, we weren’t really worried about that kind of stuff,” Kobasew said.
Throughout the first three rounds, the Flames slowly gained respect with their hard work and inspiring wins. Along the way, Iginla gave his team enormous momentum boosts by not only scoring goals but by dropping the gloves.
In Game 3 against Vancouver he fought rugged defenseman Mattias Ohlund, and in Game 2 against Detroit he squared off against Derian Hatcher, nearly sparking a line brawl.
But Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final saw two leaders go at it, as Iginla dropped the gloves with Vincent Lecavalier.
“We weren’t surprised by what (Iginla) did. When your captain does that, he leads by example and it gets the other guys on board,” Kobasew said.
The final resulted in some of the tightest hockey played, Kobasew said, as the last four games were each decided by one goal. There was even a bit of controversy when, in Game 6, a shot appeared to deflect off the skate of Flames forward Martin Gelinas and across the goal line, which would’ve given the Flames the lead and Stanley Cup championship.
Instead, the referees didn’t signal a goal and Flames went on to lose in overtime, followed by a Game 7 loss two nights later.
“Everyone in Canada believes Marty Gelinas put that puck across the line in Game 6,” Kobasew said. “Everyone has their own opinion on what happened.”
With their miraculous run to the Stanley Cup Final coming up just short, the Flames never had a chance to follow up on the momentum the next season, which was never held due to the lockout. When NHL play resumed for the 2005-06 season, many of the players from Calgary’s 2004 squad were gone.
“We never really got things rolling again after that,” Kobasew said. “It still stings, but the experience and the memories I gained from that run will always be with me.”