The Stanley Cup championship series that starts tonight will match Cinderella against Cinderella, David against David, underdog against underdog. Nobody can be favored. The four division winners were eliminated long ago. Now in this year of the upset it comes down to Calgary and Montreal, the sixth- and seventh-best teams in the National Hockey League during the regular season.
West will be facing East, Western Canada vs.Eastern Canada. The first two games will be played tonight and Sunday in Calgary, which is still digging out from under a foot of freshly fallen snow. The next two will be in Montreal; then, if necessary, the action will swing back and forth across the northland every other game in this first all-Canadian final in 19 years.
This marks a return to the traditional format, ending a two-year experiment with a 2-3-2 schedule which seemed to take away too much of the ``home ice'' advantage from the team that was supposed to have it.
Calgary earned the extra home game this year by finishing the 80-game schedule with 89 points, to Montreal's 87. The Flames have reached the finals for the first time and their fans are ecstatic.
Traditionalists, however, prefer Montreal's prospects. The Canadiens have won a record 22 Stanley Cups in their rich history and would love to have to find room on the ceiling of the Forum for one more banner.
They are led by forward Bob Gainey and defenseman Larry Robinson, both mainstays of the Canadiens' last championship team in 1979. (Ironically, Calgary center Doug Risebrough also played for that Canadien squad.)
The older Canadiens were glad to get a week-long rest after they eliminated the New York Rangers in five games in the semifinals. Meanwhile Calgary, which had upset defending champion Edmonton earlier in the playoffs, had to go all the way in its semifinal series before beating St. Louis 2-1 Wednesday night in a weary seventh game.
There are two schools of thought as to whether a team is better off getting extra rest or staying sharp by playing on, and examples can be found for either side of that debate. This year could be a case of each team getting what it needs -- the more seasoned Canadiens benefiting from the time off and the less-experienced Flames gaining from the ongoing activity.
Rested or not, both teams will bank mainly on dogged, determined, cloying defense. They are classic examples of conservative playoff winners relying on hot goaltenders -- rookie goaltenders at that.
The Canadiens, known in an earlier prime as the flying Frenchmen, have become the unflagging internationalists. Stifling the opposition is their game, and their roster is flavored with Swedes like the explosive Kjell Dahlin and Mats Naslund, and Americans like Chris Chelios and Mike Lalor, as well as swift-skating Quebec natives like Guy Carbonneau and Claude Lemieux.
Montreal has been the stingiest team in the playoffs, yielding an average of fewer than two goals a game.
Goalie Patrick Roy (pronounced ``Rue'-aw'') has been nearly unbeatable. In a crucial overtime against the Rangers he stopped 13 shots with 13 different parts of his body and padding. He has played every minute of every Montreal playoff game, nervously but brilliantly.
Roy, a wan, gawky 20-year-old from Quebec City, spends his free time on the ice fidgeting and talking to the goalposts. Early in the season he could speak to the posts only in French. Now he addresses them in improving English, too.
Robinson, who stands guard in front of Roy, compares him with Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, who joined the Canadiens late in 1971 and lifted them to the cup.
``He's the reason we're here,'' Robinson says of this year's rookie phenom.
In the Calgary net will be Mike Vernon, a hometown boy who had fleeting NHL exposure until the second half of the season. He holds his ground -- or his ice -- against the fiercest assaults. He's as cool as Roy is edgy.
Vernon may be small at 5 ft. 9 in., but there's plenty of beef in front of him. The Flames are the biggest team in the league. The last time they were weighed and measured, 13 players were taller than six feet, and 10 weighed more than 200 pounds.
``The best way to prepare for them,'' says Ranger coach Ted Sator, ``is to take your players to see `Rocky IV.' ''
The Flames like to use their heft to slam people into the boards or box seats, and a physical series can be expected, because Montreal will not shy away.
Calgary is not as young a team as might be expected. The Flames acquired 33-year-old John Tonelli in March from the New York Islanders, a team which he had helped to win four straight Stanley Cups. Another worthy acquisition was Joey Mullen, a needed scoring threat who can convert Tonelli's passes out of the corners.
Can the Flames, who failed to find a home in Atlanta and earlier this season lost 11 straight games, offset more than half a century of Montreal tradition?
``They beat the Stanley Cup champs,'' says St. Louis coach Jacques Demers. ``That should tell you all you need to know.''
One thing is sure. This cup final will be won by a Cinderella, a David, an underdog.