In a game that looked and felt like a genuine playoff tilt, the Calgary Flames edged out the Minnesota Wild 5-4 on the strength of a natural hat trick by Jarome Iginla and goals by Dion Phaneuf and Matthew Lombardi. Flames fans in the 'Dome were treated to not only this outstanding effort by their captain, but a critically important flash of opportunism by the boys in red. Essentially, the Flames had to win this game (in my view, at least) to keep in the hunt for the Northwest Division pennant, and they came through with another playoff-caliber effort after their 2-1 win over Colorado on Thursday. The win puts Calgary one point behind Minnesota for the division, and two ahead of Vancouver.
The first period was relatively even, with shots even at 10. Three minutes into the second, with Calgary shorthanded, Dion Phaneuf took the puck at Calgary's left circle, skated up ice by himself with his teammates on a line change, went in on the breakaway, and backhanded it through Josh Harding's five hole with one hand on his stick. Calgary's momentum from this amazing goal would not last, though, as rookie Benoit Pouliot would tie the game on a 2-on-1 bank shot just over ten minutes later. Things looked dire for Calgary when Pouliot scored again at 18:24, which put the Flames potentially trailing in the third against a team that had been undefeated leading after two periods. But who else but Jarome Iginla would turn the Flames' fortunes, tipping home Phaneuf's point shot with 22 seconds left on the clock? This goal was the turning point of the game, as the Flames never trailed after this, grabbing a hold on the game when Iggy scored his 47th and 48th to complete the natural hat trick less than 10 minutes into the third. Although Minnesota refused to give up, coming within a goal twice on two goals by Kim Johnsson, ultimately Matthew Lombardi won the game for the Flames with a sieve goal against Josh Harding with a minute and 42 seconds left (a long range slapper that found its way through Harding's pads).
The three stars of the game were obvious choices: Iginla, Phaneuf and Pouliot, but if there could be a fourth star awarded, I think it should be awarded to Miikka Kiprusoff, in master form just in time. Although the Flames essentially outchanced the Wild through most of the game, Kipper had to make several critical, 2004-esque saves to win the Flames the game.
It is good to see Matthew Lombardi finally do something with all that speed of his. He has now won the Flames two critical games in a row with it. On Thursday against Colorado, he drew two first period penalties that resulted in the two goals that won the game, and tonight he scored the game-winning goal. Admittedly, the goal was a sieve goal but Lombardi is finally getting shots on goal.
I have said this before, about other wins that ended up being cancelled out soon after by the inconsistent Flames, but as pessimistic and cynical as I still am, I can't help but be pleased by this effort tonight. Anyone who reads my blog might be surprised to read me say this, but the Flames' efforts the past two games have been those worthy of a playoff team. Next for the Flames is the suddenly deflated Colorado Avalanche on Monday, against whom the Flames must continue their opportunism.
On Wednesday, I wrote that the Flames needed five more wins out of nine to reach the seemingly magic number of 94 points to make the playoffs. Now they just need three out of seven. The divisional race, on the other hand, is something I have calculated to have absolutely zero room for mediocrity.
Eklund's "Virtual Standings" have the winner of the Northwest having 100 points, which is a point lower than my guess of 101. Since Thursday, the Northwest race has changed dramatically, with the two most probable teams still being Calgary and Minnesota. I have calculated that, if this point total stands up, either the Flames, Canucks or Wild have to go essentially undefeated for the rest of the season (Minnesota requires at least a 5-0-1 record, Calgary requires at least a 5-0-2 record, and Vancouver must go 7-0.) This seems especially hard to believe because of the Northwest round-robin schedule (Mike Keenan remarked that if a team from the Northwest wins the Stanley Cup, they will have to win five playoff rounds), yet 100 points, given all trends and projections, does seem like a realistic number. How many points do you think it will take to win the Northwest? Because the current number has my eyes about to pop out of my head because of what it would require of the teams in the race. Another important question to contemplate, though, is how many points will it take to finish second in the Northwest?
The possibility has been brought up of the the team that finishes second in the Northwest taking the Dallas Stars' position of fifth in the conference. This is a real possibility, as Minnesota and Dallas currently have the same number of points. Dallas has also lost 7 of its last 8 games, including one today to the lowly Kings, and their remaining schedule is half comprised of playoff teams and non playoff teams from their conference. So assuming the team in second in the Northwest ends tied with Dallas in points, and the two teams end tied with 45 wins (which could happen only if Dallas goes 3-3, and Calgary and Minnesota both go undefeated and the division is decided April 3 at Minnesota in the Wild/Flames game) the next tiebreaker is the season series. Dallas has already won their season series against Minnesota, and has tied against Calgary (so the Stars would probably take the 5th seed because they would have scored more goals than the Flames.) The Vancouver Canucks, therefore, are the only team that could possibly overtake the Stars, and that could only happen if the Stars finish the season 3-3 or worse and the Canucks go at least 4-3 or better.
So if the Flames can't do it, why did I explain why they couldn't? Because I don't want them to. I thought, on this Easter weekend, I could get through a post praising the Flames with as little negative comments as possible, but put simply...
Let's hope tonight's game was a playoff preview, and I'm not just referring to the quality of the Flames' play. Let's not hope the Canucks catch fire. My new catchphrase for the rest of the Flames' season shall be "First or second or bust".