As I fully expected, as uncharacteristically optimistic I am right now, the San Jose Sharks came back and tied their series with the Flames tonight with a 2-0 shutout. It's not a game that requires much analysis, interpretation, or explanation. Simply put, the Flames lost because of one thing: penalties.
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As I noted in last night's post, I would have been shocked if the Flames managed to win this one. I knew the Sharks would come out knowing they could not afford to be down 2-0 going to Calgary, and it showed (above everything else it's clear, penalties nonwithstanding, that San Jose wanted this game more than the Flames). Yet the Flames were not to have one of those common Game 2s that tend to happen where the team that's down scores a goal in the first five minutes and takes control of the game because of more desperation. They played perfectly in the first period, checking the Sharks the right way and keeping pace, and even being robbed by Evgeni Nabokov's glove after David Moss made a perfect centering pass to Matthew Lombardi from the point, with the final shot count 10-8 in favor of Calgary. But it was the second period that lost the Flames the game. Joe Pavelski scored on a spin-o-rama shot Miikka Kiprusoff didn't see coming less than 5 minutes in, and then the penalties started to come.
Normally, I devote one paragraph to a brief game summary, but the penalties the Flames took were so crucial to the game that they get their own paragraph. The penalty parade started just over six minutes in, when Kiprusoff got a hooking penalty trying to get Joe Thornton out of his crease. This one was killed off, but only twenty seconds after it ended Jarome Iginla was called on a rather dubious holding call. This was killed off but then David Hale went off for cross checking, then Kristian Huselius, then Stephane Yelle, then Jim Vandermeer....in all the Flames took seven penalties in the second, and were essentially shorthanded for the entire period, with the Sharks finally capitalizing after one of the most amazing goaltending performances I have seen in a long time from Kipper (since last year's playoffs), with a Torrey Mitchell goal at 18:09. The final shot count of the period was a whopping 27-3 advantage for San Jose. A few of these penalties were bad calls, no doubt. I didn't see how Iginla committed a penalty, and while Vandermeer's slash was obvious, so was Joe Thornton's dive, and I felt Kyle McLaren also dived on Huselius' penalty. Mike Keenan rightfully gave the refs an earful for these, and they did the Flames a favor in the third when they let Dion Phaneuf get away with a dive and gave Mitchell an interference penalty. But those are only three of seven penalties. The rest - the cross checks especially - were just plain stupid.
The Flames started the third on their own powerplay, after Craig Rivet went to the box at the very end of the second, but couldn't get anywhere on it. The Flames were paid a favor by the referees after some of the dubious calls in the second, when Torrey Mitchell got the penalty when Dion dived. But, yet again, the Flames couldn't capitalize, and that would be all she wrote. Nabokov made a save of the year candidate on Owen Nolan with about five minutes left, robbing Nolan with his glove despite a wide open net and perfectly placed shot by Nolan, but it would be the Flames' last good chance as Adrian Aucoin took yet another penalty shortly after.
The shot count was near identical to last night's - 43-21 for San Jose - but the first star of the game was given to Nabokov, with Kipper getting second for his stupendous heroics that kept Calgary in the game until the very end. Anytime you get outshot by a ratio of two to one and the opposing goalie is the first star, you know that you played a close game for the most part. I do think without the penalties, the Flames win the game. Not to say that other factors weren't at work; after all, the Sharks knew they had to win this game and were overall more urgent. But the Flames were not dominated, either. In essence, it was just like the first game, except with the tables turned. And six times as many penalties.
The Flames come home on Sunday with the series tied, and quite frankly I couldn't be happier at this point, unless the Flames had pulled off a miracle tonight. Sure, their momentum derailed itself due to stupidity, but the Sharks didn't coast to victory either. Through two games, I am completely satisfied with the Flames' effort and still believe they have a shot to win the series. (Note to RinkLighter: I haven't sold out, if we lose I'll return to my pessimistic self. The Flames are in a Catch-22: either upset the league's hottest team, or the season is a failure. And I just believe that you shouldn't be too pessimistic during the playoffs; having said that, if I was blogging during the first round last year I would have blasted the Flames without hesitation.) Sure, Miikka Kiprusoff has made 81 saves over two games. But as my dad wisely said, never apologize for good goaltending. Name me one team that upset the favorite that didn't win because of goaltending like this. Anyone who thought or still thinks the Flames can win the series knows Kiprusoff must stand on his head, regardless of how the rest of the team plays. After all, the Flames are facing the second best team in the league, one that undeniably packs a bigger scoring punch. But Kiprusoff's performance isn't like last year, when he single handedly almost pushed the Wings to seven games. No, he has a supporting cast this year, and it's because of this that I am a believer right now that the Flames CAN pull it off.
Much was made of the fact that the Flames "stole" home ice advantage yesterday. San Jose now has to win at least one game at the Saddledome to win the series, and if they do get only one win, the series will go to seven. The playoff atmosphere seems to be back in town right now. And if the Sharks win two or more times at the 'Dome, the Flames will not win the series; my new optimism can only go so far. The Sea of Red has to be in full force on Sunday. If that happens, and the Flames continue to play the same game 5-on-5 while averting stupidity, they can win. I am going to make a very bold prediction, one that's based on nothing but a gut feeling right now and has a very high probability of being completely wrong. Here goes: if the Flames win Game 3, I believe they will win the series. Not to say that if they lose, I believe they will lose, but if they win I will be convinced. Grill me if you want, Sharks fans. I'm not making this prediction to stir up controversy. Nor am I entirely convinced the Flames can win. It's just a bold prediction, no evidence, no guarantees. I might look like an idiot when it's all said and done, but who doesn't?
The Sea of Red, the same style of play, and no more stupidity. That's what the Flames need.
(On a more objective note, this series has been terrific so far. I now see why some people said this could be the most entertaining first round matchup. If you're a fan of strong goaltending you'll love this series; tonight's first-second star performances by Nabokov and Kiprusoff were some of the best goaltending performances I have seen in a while.)
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