Having already outdone the critics by keeping pace with the heavily favored Sharks for four out of five games, the Calgary Flames have gone the extra mile and forced them to a winner-take-all Game 7 by defeating the Sharks 2-0 at home in a must-win Game 6. And judging from their efforts the past two games, it's genuinely a toss up. I am trying to avoid sounding like Rob Kerr, who wisely proclaimed on Friday that "every series that ever went seven games had a team up 3-2 in the series after five games", but what I mean by the overly obvious statement of the previous sentence is that this was no steal of a win. No, the Flames have genuinely proved their worth, and carry into the Shark Tank on Tuesday the momentum and all the pressure on their adversaries.
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The game was the absolutely perfect effort at home the Flames needed. The first period was their best all series, outshooting the Sharks 11-5 and taking a 1-0 lead for the third straight game when Owen Nolan banged home a loose puck after Kristian Huselius' stickwork kept it in the Sharks' zone. But unlike their Game 4 effort, the Flames handled their icebreaker goal the right way: instead of sitting back and trying to win 1-0, they kept the same pace and urgency with the Sharks in front of the Sea of Red. The Sharks narrowly outshot the Flames 9-8 in the second, but Miikka Kiprusoff stopped all nine and, in a neat poetic twist at the other end, his efforts were rewarded in the final minute when Daymond Langkow took the puck away from Marc-Edouard Vlasic - the defenceman that San Jose eventually received when they traded Kipper to Calgary - and beat Evgeni Nabokov at the left circle with a low wrister for a critical 2-0 lead. In the third, Calgary killed off an early penalty and Kipper made 7 more saves to send the series to Game 7.
The Flames won tonight's game by compensation. The consensus on the frustrating fifth game seemed to be that while it was the Flames' finest effort, the mistakes they did make all led to goals, costing them the game. The Flames compensated for that by making none of the dumb mistakes that led to goals. They were effective clearing the puck - something that had been plaguing them. They did not allow themselves to get dominated, controlling the Sharks on the boards (final hit count: Flames 32, Sharks 14) and made some great defensive plays when the Sharks got in the zone. I'll admit one thing, the Flames' lack of natural goal scorers did show in this game, when they failed to get anything significant out of several chances generated, but the work that produced those potential chances compensated; surely if they keep that work up they should get more luck with the puck. The two most important compensations for Calgary were obvious, however, as they were in the form of Calgary's two most important players: Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. It was obvious after Game 5 that the Flames needed secondary scoring, but more specifically anyone other than just the guy with the "C" on his chest. And they delivered. Not only did Owen Nolan continue his strong veteran presence with the winning goal, Daymond Langkow snapped out of a string of bad luck and missed shots with the critical goal. Meanwhile, Iginla had just three shots on goal, but it wasn't until about halfway through the third that I noticed. And Miikka Kiprusoff, who Mike Keenan had said had to play at a higher level, delivered on his coach's instructions, making 21 saves for the shutout. He indeed played at a higher level than the previous games, making many saves that seemed like goals in previous games (the toe save he made on Ryane Clowe late in the second seemed like a similar play to Clowe's opening goal in Game 3, except with the opposite result).
It wasn't just secondary scoring, it was a secondary effort in general as well. Eric Nystrom continues to elevate his play with extremely smart, gritty, passionate work. Anders Eriksson not only was on the ice 20+ minutes, he justified his play for once, getting an assist, recording two hits, and displaying less of the giveaway prone defenceman Flames fans have known all too well. Wayne Primeau showed some uncharacteristic speed, drawing a penalty after getting a partial break on net. David Moss continues to show a nose for the net. In my mind, if the Flames can get players like this to put in efforts like tonight's, and Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay can get in more effective efforts (I'd expand on this had the Flames not won), then not only should the Sharks look out, but the Wings, Stars and Avs better look out too. Of course, the latter three teams are irrelevant to the Flames if they don't come out with another perfect effort on Tuesday night.
Game 7, the most mystical event of most of North American professional sports, looms on Tuesday thanks to the Flames' efforts. One year ago to this day, heck, looking at the current time of 10:21 PM, it may have been precisely one year ago at the time I'm typing this, Johan Franzen finally put the Flames out of their misery with a double overtime goal in Game 6. It was a miracle the Flames managed to win two games of that series, a miracle from Finland; however, I nonetheless wonder sometimes what if David Moss had aimed his chance in the first overtime a wee bit lower, not hit the crossbar and forced Game 7. But I always quickly quash this fantasy by reminding myself that the Flames had been utterly dominated in all three games in Detroit, and there was no evidence to suggest they could turn it around for the final game. After this embarrassment, novice coach Jim Playfair was replaced with Mike Keenan, to the astonishment of the hockey community. The regular season seemed to suggest Keenan's team was no more improved than Playfair's, but now the Flames have accomplished against the Sharks what Moss could not against the Wings. Yet unlike that disgusting mismatch, I am actually confident heading into Game 7 (or, than I would have been had Moss hit the net). I truly see no reason why the Flames can't win Game 7, unless their team effort is inferior to the last two games.
The 2008 playoffs have been chock full of upsets so far. The defending champion Ducks have just been stunned by the Dallas Stars in six. Sixth-seeded Colorado took out the Northwest champion Minnesota Wild (ok, maybe this one was only a surprise to me). And in the East, the Boston Bruins have managed to climb out of a hole and force top-seeded Montreal to Game 7. Unless Boston manages to complete the comeback, I still think that Calgary defeating San Jose would be the biggest upset of the first round (if the Habs win tomorrow, the Flames winning this series would at least be the biggest upset in the West).
The final seconds of this game, with the Sea of Red waving scores of Flames flags, the green horn blaring in triumph, and Beezley's booming, jubilant voice scarcely discernible above the roar of the crowd, was undoubtedly the high point of the Flames' season so far. But without another triumph on Tuesday night in the Shark Tank's first Game 7, it will be rendered null and void. Tuesday night determines whether or not the Flames are at all improved, and renders the season a success or another mediocre failure.
And quite frankly, I cannot wait.
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