It seemed, at first, to be the road sign pointing towards another cliff in the near distance for the Calgary Flames to drive off of to meet their playoff doom. Less than five minutes after Heather Liscano wrapped up the national anthems, the home team, which had played so well against the number two seeded San Jose Sharks for two games in the Shark Tank, matching them save-for-save and check-for-check (if not shot-for-shot), were down 3-0 after a deflating early powerplay goal by Ryane Clowe was followed by two more quick ones by Patrick Marleau and Douglas Murray. The Sea of Red had been reduced to a puddle of crimson, and the Flames' hero for the first two games, playoff Superman Miikka Kiprusoff, was sitting, furious, on the bench in a Flames cap, the old vet Curtis Joseph replacing him.
And then came a single, crushing, fight inciting hit. The Sharks' captain Marleau retrieved the loose puck along his boards, and with CBC's camera dramatically zoomed in, met the wrath of Cory Sarich, whose brilliant bone crushing hit successfully agitated the Sharks enough to give the Flames a 4-on-3 advantage. 28 seconds later, Jarome Iginla redirected Dion Phaneuf's point wrister, and the Flames were back in the game, just like that. From that point onward, it could be said that the Flames never looked back. The Sharks never got their initial momentum back, and never quite got such clear chances as they had in the first five minutes, as the Flames eventually tied the game on Dion's clever deflection before the old Shark Owen Nolan scored the game winning goal with 3:45 to go.
As much as I am reveling in this win, I think it presents a controversy that all teams try to avoid, yet one that I think hockey media likes more than any other controversy. It starts with 'g' and ends with 'tending'. Curtis Joseph was named first star of the game after he made 22 saves after Kiprusoff was pulled after the 3rd goal, keeping the Sharks off the scoreboard. After the third goal, I saw Mike Keenan pull his team over to the bench, and I presumed he was calling a timeout, only to be shocked to see CuJo skate off the bench and Kipper march furiously into the dressing room, throwing his stick as he went, not even taking off his mask. I instantly wrote this off as another one of Keenan's well-known goaltending eccentricities (to use a kind word). Frustrated with being down 3-0 so early, I began to curse Keenan, something I haven't done much all season. After all, even though Kiprusoff let in three goals on five shots, I felt that none of them were his fault except maybe the last, and it was the result of defensive breakdowns. It was only after the game, when I read the final shot count and was celebrating the Flames' rally, that I realized those defensive breakdowns were the exact reason Kiprusoff had been pulled. Over two games, the Flames had been disgustingly outshot and Kiprusoff was the only reason the Flames kept in both games. The defense was breaking down with the Superman goalie between the posts, and Keenan pulled Kiprusoff not because of poor play, but more to send a message. After all, you're down 3-0, what's the worst that could happen? And it worked, and Mad Mike looks like a genius.
After Iginla got the Flames back in the game following the Sarich hit, I thought, if the Flames manage to tie the game, surely Kipper will be put back in the net. This turned out not to be necessary, but I am undecided as to who I think should start for Game 4. On one hand, really, what's the worst that could happen if Joseph got the start? As tonight's game proved, the Flames can win without a superhuman performance from their goaltender (although CuJo deserved the first star, he undeniably had a much lighter workload than Kipper the past two games). If the Sharks come out hungrier than the Flames, what difference will the goaltender make (see: Game 2)? On another hand, that question, what difference will the goaltender make, is also the exact reason why Kiprusoff should start. After all, Kiprusoff on his game, in front of the Sea of Red, could help the Flames steal Game 4 like they almost stole Game 2. I think that Kipper just makes more logical sense, and I expect him to start on Tuesday. But like I said before, Mike Keenan has never been entirely logical (on paper) when it comes to his goalies. Luckily, there's only one day for the media to blitz Keenan on this issue so hopefully it doesn't become a distraction. The Flames have played San Jose perfectly so far and distractions are the last thing they need.
I am obviously biased but this was a truly impressive effort from the Flames. For the first time all series they kept pace with the Sharks in shots, with the final count being 27-25 in favor of the Sharks (with Calgary outshooting them in the second and third). Although nobody called me out on it, following Game 2 I made a prediction that I now realize was a huge mistake. For the purpose of superstition, and not looking too much like a homer, I will not repeat it. But I will say this: tonight, my pessimism was defeated, for one game at least. From now on, I will take things one game at a time, for better or worse. I still genuinely believe the Flames CAN win this series, but if they lose, I will make you the same guarantee I would have given you before the series started, whether the Flames were swept or lost in a Game 7 heartbreaker: expect a scathing, frustrated blog post. Just wanted to clear that up, no more predictions from me.
If Game 1 was a perfect road game, Game 3 was a perfect home game, except for the first five minutes, for the Flames. And all I can say is, keep it up. Two wins away from a successful season...and three losses away from another year of complete mediocrity. It's really up to the team, they have proven so far they were underestimated by the media pundits.
(Addendum: there has been a lot of talk about the officiating, especially in Game 2 and the penalties that cost the Flames the game - I've already given my thoughts on the Flames' penalty parade in that game. But let me say, and I am not complaining, that from an objective point of view, I still think the officiating has been terrible this series - ON BOTH SIDES. The first penalty of the game tonight, that led to the Sharks' first goal, was called a slash just 30 seconds in, and even CBC's announcers thought it was a cheap call. As they said, if you're going to call a penalty that early, it better be blatant. I am not, however, complaining, since this goes both ways, as Kyle McLaren's elbowing penalty that led to the 3-2 goal from Daymond Langkow in the second was a terrible call also. But there can't be complaining about this - if the officiating's going to be this way, then quite simply, may the best powerplay win. The Flames won Game 1 because of a powerplay goal - alright, it wasn't technically the GWG - the Sharks won Game 2 because they got more powerplays, and the Flames got back in the game on powerplays. And really, given how awful the Flames' powerplay has been for years, it seems to me like they've had this coming for a long time. My main point: yes, the officiating is awful, but until a call DIRECTLY costs someone a game, I don't feel criticizing it is warranted beyond a objective critique.)