The Calgary Flames pulled off a shocker on the opening night of the playoffs, beating the heavily favored San Jose Sharks 3-2 on the strength of an early 2-0 lead and a 37-save performance by Miikka Kiprusoff. As cynical as I continue to be, and it's certainly true that relying on your goaltender to steal you games is not a winning strategy, I feel that the Flames should be given some credit for this game, biased as though I still am.
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The Flames genuinely came out playing like a playoff team. I don't know whether the Sharks weren't ready, they were underestimating Calgary, they had first game jitters, or whether it was just the Flames and their newly acquired mohawks, but for the first five minutes, the Flames outshot the Sharks 7-1 and got a 2-0 lead on a tip in by Stephane Yelle off the draw and a rebound goal from Dion Phaneuf on the powerplay. This momentum would fade just as quickly, however, on a Ryane Clowe goal less than a minute after Dion's. The Flames kept pace with the Sharks in the first, racking up 9 shots to the Sharks' 11. In the second, Yelle's second goal - though most of the credit belonged to Jarome Iginla, who highjacked the puck from Brian Campbell with a tremendous effort, broke in on goal and allowed Yelle to pot the rebound in front as the net fell off the moorings - would prove to be the winner. Kipper simply completely took over the game in the third, making 13 saves including several in the final minute after Clowe's second goal had made it 3-2. Five minutes of dominance, one magnificent play by Iginla, and another magical playoff performance from Kiprusoff was all the Flames needed to win. It's not really a compliment but it's not necessarily a fluke of a win either. There are many positive things for the Flames to take from this game, aside the obvious 1-0 series lead.
Critics of Calgary, who admittedly include me to a certain degree, will point at Kipper's 37 saves as the only reason the Flames won. And that is definitely true, the Flames would not have won if not for Kipper's performance. (Duh.) However, as Iginla pointed out in his post game interview, the Flames did take advantage of their chances for the most part. The powerplay, which was 1 for 3 on the night, was more organized than I have seen it in a long time. Another reason San Jose lost, aside from the Kipper's magic, can be seen in the giveaway stats - 18 for the Sharks and 5 for Calgary. And it was a takeaway that won them the game: Iggy's stripping of the puck off Brian Campbell.
All the ingredients for winning were present in this game for the Flames: a quick, early positive start, a dominant effort from Kiprusoff, a dominant effort from Iginla, a relative lack of stupid penalties, and shutting down the Sharks' big guns (Joe Thornton had just one shot and an assist, though on the assist he was completely uncovered as he fed the puck to Clowe for the 3-2 goal), and good special teams play. Although there was too much of the second ingredient, the result was still the same and if they keep up the rest, but "balance the recipe" so to speak, they can win the series. (I apologize if this metaphor was horrible, it's a common affliction of those writing sports prose to be terrible at metaphors.)
This game was definitely not a perfect effort from the Flames. However, I don't think it was entirely a steal of a win either. It was just good enough to win. The Flames showed flashes of being a legitimate playoff team when it counted. It was certainly a better effort than any of the six games played against Detroit last spring. There is lots of room for improvement, and luckily, the Flames managed to get this just-good-enough-to-win effort in in the first game rather than, say, the fourth. Because of the back-to-back schedule, coming home to the 'Dome with at least a split was crucial to me, and now the Flames have assured themselves of that. In my mind, winning this game kept my faith the Flames can still win the series.
Sharks fans who may be reading this, do not take this as me saying the Flames have a grip on the series, because what I believe could not be farther from the truth. I would be absolutely shocked if the Flames won tomorrow night and took a 2-0 lead, and I fully expect the Sharks to write this game off as a robbery, come back tomorrow night and tie the series. But in my view, the Flames have at least shown they can win the series. After all, three more wins, right?
The Flames could be swept the rest of the series and lose in 5, or they could keep it close like tonight and win in 7. It all depends on what they continue to do from tonight's game: do they continue to use a strategy of "alright goalie, go out there and steal one for us" (as Kelly Hrudey described it, though I thought he didn't give Calgary enough credit), or do they take the other things that allowed them to win this game?
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