The Calgary Flames rebounded from an abysmal first period, a terribly soft goal, and a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 tonight at the Saddledome. With the win, Calgary takes the lead in the Northwest Division with 90 points, one more than Minnesota and four more than the Canucks and Colorado Avalanche. This was a huge win for the Flames, who go into a three day break on a winning note before what I consider to be their most important game of the season on Saturday at home versus the Oilers.
The first period was a travesty reminiscent of the Flames' pathetic efforts in last year's playoff series against the Red Wings. The Canucks outshot the Flames 21-7 and had three powerplays, the first of which resulted in a Markus Naslund rebound goal at 9:29. Just 11 seconds later, Miikka Kiprusoff allowed a terrible goal, the victim of an impossibly angled Daniel Sedin shot that bounced off his glove, which made it 2-0. In the second and third periods, however, the Flames rebounded and proved they deserved to win the game. The Flames came out in the second playing like an NHL team in their position should, and just over two minutes in, Jarome Iginla shoveled in his 49th on a rebound, the result of some good-old fashioned net crashing by Daymond Langkow and Wayne Primeau. The Flames outshot the Canucks 18-3 in this period and carried their momentum into the third, but it wasn't until midway over the third that they could finally break down the Great Wall of Vancouver again. A flurry of Canucks penalties, including a desperate delay-of-game penalty for intentionally knocking the net off its moorings, resulted in Langkow finally tying the game at 10:46 when he tipped in an Alex Tanguay centering pass in front of the net. Just 41 seconds later, Adrian Aucoin took advantage of a bad Vancouver line change and fed a wide-open Dion Phaneuf, who sped down the wing and fired a cannon of a shot over Roberto Luongo's glove. After this go-ahead goal, Miikka Kiprusoff redeemed himself for the earlier sieve goal, making four saves in the final minute with the Flames shorthanded for the win.
This was an undeniably huge win, one that the Flames needed to stay in the division pennant race, and they came through with another playoff effort. Mike Keenan must have layed down an impressive ass-kicking at the first intermission, because there was simply no comparison between the Flames in the first period and the rest of the game.
On the subject of the Flames' skipper, he certainly provided this blogger with a lot of material to comment on tonight; his lineup decisions showed how he has earned the nickname of "Mad Mike". His most notable decision was to make Kristian Huselius, second on the team in points, a healthy scratch. This came after two consecutive games in which Huselius was mostly benched (as apparent punishment for his poor defensive play.) Keenan also made the curious decision of playing big third/fourth line winger Wayne Primeau on the first line with Iginla and Langkow for much of the game. Although the Flames proved they didn't need Huselius' offense, and Primeau played a very good game (to my shock), I think these changes are probably a one game thing. Scratching Huselius may be an effective punishment, but it is simply illogical to deliberately keep a player with that much offensive skill out of the game. I expect him to be in the lineup for Saturday's game, but I am also fairly certain that his absence tonight confirms what I have suspected for a few months: Kristian Huselius will not be a Calgary Flame after July 1st. For Darryl Sutter and Mike Keenan, streakiness, no matter how pretty those good streaks can be, is not worth the money Huselius will probably fetch on the free agent market.
On Monday, it was reported that the Flames' magic number to make the playoffs with seven games left was seven, either in points they earned, points lost by the ninth seed, or a combination of both. Now, that number is five, with as many games left. The absolute minimum the Flames need to clinch a playoff berth is two wins and a Nashville loss.
But on the subject of improbable scenarios and teams making a last, desperate push for a playoff berth, I'll conclude this post by talking briefly about the Edmonton Oilers, whose symbiotic relationship with the Flames continues tomorrow when they play Minnesota. I mentioned earlier that I consider the Flames' next game on Saturday against the Oilers to be their most important game of the season, and now I'll try to explain why. As good a story as the Oilers' resurgence is, they are currently on the road trip that will show whether their miracle comeback will result in a playoff berth or not. By the time they arrive in Calgary, the Oilers will either be desperately trying to keep their slim hopes alive or fully on the brink of completing their improbable comeback. Whatever it is, it will be compounded with a desire to be spoiler to the Flames' division hopes (or, God forbid, playoff hopes altogether). It is also the Flames' final game at home before a three game road trip that will likely decide the division. All of these factors have me very nervous and anxious about the Oilers coming to town.
Tonight's game was really the first I genuinely watched like a playoff game, cheering and moaning as if it were an actual first round series. However, I fully expect Saturday's game to blow the tension of tonight's out of the water.