It’s the final countdown. Ten games remaining. Twenty points on the line. And one chance to salvage a tumultuous season that has seen the Flames sway from a potential lottery pick team to a venerable foe poised to snap their current two-season playoff drought.
They set up this final stretch nicely, rolling off five straight victories against respectable opponents until dropping an “easy” game against provincial rival Edmonton on Friday night with a lackluster effort. While the loss wasn’t devastating to their chances, it squeezed an already narrow margin for error as the Flames find themselves in a dogfight for the final two spots amongst a pack of talented squads who all hold expectations of postseason play.
And they won’t make it easy for the Flames. Since their loss on Friday night the Sharks and Avalanche already picked up victories against two of the league’s elite, Phoenix would storm back from two goals down and beat the Oilers in the shootout, while Daryl Sutter’s Kings snatched up four points in back to back nights dropping the Flames down to 11th spot.
The Flames will get a chance to pull themselves back up with key matchups against the pack members in the next two weeks. But first they’re served a “gimme” game against the last place Columbus Blue Jackets. Or so you would think…
Not so fast. Easy points are anything but easy for the Calgary Flames. They shouldn’t come any easier than Columbus. Situated comfortably in the basement the Jackets have lost four straight, including last night’s setback at the hands of the Canucks less than 20 hours prior. The Jackets arrived in Calgary early this morning to face off against a hungry and rested Flames squad, looking to avenge their loss to the Oilers and get back into the win column.
But as anticipated it would be far from easy for the Flames. They would take their time getting invested and it ultimately cost them as they ran out of time and dropped this one in the shootout, 2-1 final. One huge point gained. One very costly point left on the table.
On The Line
Everything? Is that fair? While the Flames can afford to lose a few more games down the stretch, and pulling off victories against fellow bubble teams would be far preferable, back-to-back losses against the league’s worst two teams would be absolutely devastating at this juncture. It would also likely answer the question of whether the Flames have the mettle to earn their first playoff berth since 2009.
The greater travesty of the first period probably wasn’t the anemic, unmotivated play of the Calgary Flames, but rather the predictability of such a sluggish start in a “gimme” game. It would be the halfway mark of the first before the Flames would finally register their first shot, although Bouwmeester did ring the crossbar a few minutes earlier. Their biggest weakness of the season — the faceoff– proved deadly when a clean win by the Jackets let to a Nikitin bomb that blew through a crowd, including Kiprusoff. Desbiens would do his part dropping the gloves off the ensuing faceoff in a spirited tilt with Boll in an attempt to spark the club. Then a potential break as Curtis Sanford went down with an apparent lower leg injury, bringing out the stale and often shaky Steve Mason. But it took until a late powerplay opportunity for the Flames to finally wake up, showing the tenacity and urgency Flames fans were hoping to see in such a pivotal game. They peppered the newly inserted Mason with a flurry of rubber but were unable to light the lamp.
The Flames carried their enthusiasm into the second, driving the net like former prospect Andrei Medvedev used to drive the buffet table. The Flames appeared equally as hungry. Bodies were flying at both ends of the rink, but despite their best efforts, and a 16-3 shot advantage in the frame, they couldn’t solve the former rookie of the year goaltender who was recapturing some of his magic that once earned him the award. With the amount of pressure the Flames were applying you’d figure the tying goal was only a matter of time. But was too much of it wasted with their apathetic start?
The fans were boisterous to start the third, encouraged by the Flames’ attack they vesseled their nervous energy into audible and raucous support. Finally before the halfway mark the Flames would break through, Stajan grabbing a centering pass from behind the net and lifting it shortside past Mason. If you had to single out one player who’s elevated play might be responsible for the Flames’ recent surge, Stajan might be your man. Jitters calmed with the tying goal, the Flames would settle back for the rest of the period. Shots were just 9-6 for the Jackets in the third when the buzzer sounded earning the Flames a point and setting up a critical overtime.
Five minutes of breath holding led to severe light headedness, but no goals, and we’re headed to a shootout. Some interesting choices in the breakaway challenge. Rick Nash would lose the puck into the corner. Glencross would fire the puck into the crest of Mason. It was the nifty move of rookie Cam Atkinson that would be the decider, undressing Kiprusoff and tucking it home. Iginla would try his slow saunter move in an effort to tie, this time electing to shoot, but one last pad save by Mason sealed the defeat. Ouch.
- Steve Mason: Coming in cold he would stone the Flames cold in this one. He stopped 28 of 29 and all four shots in the shootout to earn first star honors.
- Blake Comeau: He looked like he might be done for the season after he struggled to bench in the 2nd, but instead he returned to deliver his strongest effort in a Flames uniform. Seven shots on target and helped set up Stajan’s equalizer.
- Nikita Nikitin: A goal and +1 with nearly 30 minutes of ice time capped off a successful season against the Flames where he put up five point in the four game series.
Down and out late in the second, Mason would throw up the blocker in desperation to deny Blake Comeau from a much deserved goal.
Iginla would throw himself into former Flame Aaron Johnson in the first, which squirted the puck loose for a point shot opportunity. The Blue jackets would not back down physically tonight though, despite nothing to play for in the standings.
I’m not sure who’s to blame or what plagues the Flames when they face what should be an inferior opponent in a critical game. Whatever the reason the Flames are notorious for starting slow when they should be dictating and controlling the play. Once again they come out with a tepid effort to start which ultimately cost them a point in the end, and for that the entire team is deserved of the goat horns tonight.
Matt Stajan. Once thought forever buried in my doghouse he really has impressed over the last stretch. I don’t think many would be sad if he’s flipped in the off-season but for the time being I’m appreciative that he has finally showed up when the Flames really needed it.
Odds and Ends
The Flames finish the season 1-1-2 against the Blue Jackets. Four points dropped that could very likely be the difference maker come season’s end. Unbelievably frustrating. While some might be quick to write off the Flames after this weekend’s ugly setback, the Flames are still very much in control of their own fate. But what once looked a distinct possibility now resembles a usual improbability. The Flames will likely need a minimum six or seven wins in their last nine games, and many of them in regulation. And it starts on Tuesday against the Avalanche. One of the teams I believe the Flames will have to supplant if they are to make the playoffs. Of the Sharks, Kings, Coyotes, Avalanche and Stars I see the Stars, Coyotes, and Avalanche as the most catchable teams.
While the Flames wouldn’t technically lose the faceoff battle tonight, ending in 33 wins a piece, it continues to be their Achilles heel this season. A clean loss in the first sets up Nikitin’s marker and another clean loss in the third almost resulted in the game winner for Brassard if not for the quick hand of Kiprusoff… Desbiens with his 5th fight in a Flames uniform tonight, in only his 9th game.
Calgary is now tied for second in the league for most OT/SO loser points with 13. Only the Carolina Hurricanes have more with 15. When you consider the Flames have lost five more games than they’ve won it’s remarkable they’re only two points back of the playoffs.
The Flames head out on a make or break road trip, starting in Colorado on Tuesday. 7 pm puck drop on Sportsnet West.
Lines (To Start):
Tanguay – Stajan – Iginla
Glencross – Jokinen – Kostopolous
Stempniak – Moss- Comeau
Nemisz – Horak – Desbiens
Bouwmeester – Smith
Giordano – Hannan
Babchuk – Sarich