The Calgary Flames will enjoy home-ice advantage when the Stanley Cup final begins here Friday night. The Montreal Canadiens will be skating with a week's rest.
The two factors figure to offset each other and make the first all-Canadian final since 1967 a tossup. That will cramp the style of experts who have built reputations by picking underdogs in a playoff season as weird as the foot of snow that presently blankets Calgary.
"I've never seen playoffs as unpredictable as this year -- never," said Frank Udvari, a supervisor of officials who is retiring after 35 years with the NHL.
There is much common ground for the two teams other than their bases in Canada. Each depends heavily on a rookie goaltender, Patrick Roy for Montreal and Mike Vernon for Calgary.
Each is coached by a man who made his mark in the college ranks. The Canadiens' first-year leader, Jean Perron, guided the University of Moncton (New Brunswick) for 10 seasons and won three Canadian championships. The Flames' Bob Johnson spent 15 years at Wisconsin and won three NCAA titles.
Each of the finalists was a second-place finisher in the regular season, Montreal in the ultratight Adams Division and Calgary in the wide-open Smythe. Overall, the teams ranked sixth (the Flames, by two points) and seventh. Never before has a Stanley Cup final series failed to include one of the top five clubs.
The Canadiens lost the opener of the Adams final at home to fourth-place Hartford, then wound up taking the divisional title on a seventh-game overtime goal by Claude Lemieux.
The Flames blew a chance to put away defending Cup champion Edmonton in a sixth game here, then prevailed in the seventh at Northlands Coliseum when the Oilers' Steve Smith put the decisive goal into his own net.
While Montreal eliminated the New York Rangers in a five-game Prince of Wales final, the Flames once again were forced to the seven-game limit to oust St. Louis for the Campbell title, wrapping it up here Wednesday, 2-1.
"They're well-prepared. They've been watching us for six weeks," Johnson said. "But at least they couldn't get here early. I guess, with the snow, they're lucky to get here at all."
Johnson was hoping the playoff series would prove as exciting as the regular season battles between the teams, with a slightly different ending.
"We had some great games with them this season," Johnson said. "We lost to them at Montreal, 4-3, in a great hockey game and we lost here, also by one goal 6-5 . Then we won the third one 5-3 in Montreal. Every game was close and well-played."
The Flames' problem is to get ready for Montreal with so little breathing space and then maintain a high level of play during a difficult schedule that calls for games every other day until somebody wins four. Johnson likes more preparation time, and the Flames depend heavily on veterans who could start to wear down -- Lanny McDonald, 33; Doug Risebrough, 32, and John Tonelli, 29.
"The first game against St. Louis, we weren't ready because we were on another planet -- the Edmonton planet," Johnson said. "We had very poor concentration. I hope that doesn't happen tomorrow. You have to be ready, you have to be organized and you have to follow a game plan."
Risebrough has four Stanley Cup rings, all earned with Montreal. Tonelli also has four, from his days with the Islanders. For McDonald, in his 13th NHL season, this is the first trip to the Stanley Cup final.
"We've got the shot and that's all we wanted," McDonald said. "Now it's up to us to make the dream come true. That's what it is -- a dream.
"You think back to the days when you were a little kid with a stick, a puck and your imagination. You'd skate up and down the ice and you'd always score the Cup-winning goal -- in overtime."
McDonald once scored an overtime goal against Edmonton, in the 1984 Smythe final. But it decided Game 6 and the Oilers won Game 7.
Montreal winger Mario Tremblay produced the Cup-winning goal against Boston in 1978, but he was lost for the rest of this season when he suffered a broken collarbone on March 17.
Two other ailing Canadiens, both former Capitals, are probable for Friday's opener. One is defenseman Rick Green, who has been idle since early in Game 3 of the Rangers series when he suffered dizziness from an ear infection. The other is forward Ryan Walter, believed out for the season after fracturing an ankle March 29.
Walter, after two skating drills, joined the team for a regular practice Monday and, while far from 100 percent, is expected to contribute as a leader, if nothing else.
"I thought we had lost him for good, but right now I'd have to say the chances look very good that he'll play," Perron said. "There's always room in the lineup for someone like Ryan. He doesn't score a lot of goals, but he plays every shift as if it's his last one."