It looked like a game I'd played in EA Sports' NHL hockey videogames many, many times. Not only did one team have a ridiculous shot count advantage, the team trailing in that category had a comically low amount of shots. And yet, somehow, the team with less than 15 shots on goal was somehow leading the game because of two good plays. But in the final minutes, the natural order of the universe was restored as the dominating team tied and won the game with a player from their mystical "hero line". Except in this game, the Flames were on the bad side of the equation. Game 4 of the Flames/Sharks quarterfinal is over, the result of a Joe Thornton redirection with precisely 10 seconds left in the game that made the score Sharks 3, Flames 2, a fate that was somehow even more of a heartbreaker than losing in overtime would have been.
I'll admit it, I was swept up in the momentum and had faith after Sunday's incredible comeback that put the Flames up 2-1 in the series. And it seemed my faith was being rewarded early on, as Jarome Iginla made yet another spectacular individual effort to make it 1-0 less than 4 minutes in. The shot that was that goal was precisely one half of Calgary's total shots in the period, but the Sharks had a similarly mediocre 6 shots. Sure, the Flames had had only two shots on goal, but they had outskated a seemingly deflated Sharks team and only given up six themselves.
Then the rest of the game started.
The Sharks realized their desperation, but unlike the first game San Jose won, Calgary simply didn't have an answer and their play was practically giving the Sharks the game on a plate. Early in the period, the Sharks were outshooting Calgary 10-2. Their efforts were rewarded with yet another goal by the unexpected Ryane Clowe. Yet the Flames somehow found a way to get their lead back with Dion Phaneuf's point wrister off the draw with a minute and a half left in the period, and the Flames were a period away from a stranglehold on the series. But when the Flames managed only 3 shots in the third to the Sharks' 14, the hockey gods decided that was enough and a stake was driven into the Sea of Red. First Jonathan Cheechoo tied the game with less than five minutes left, slapping home a giveaway by Daymond Langkow from an impossible angle, and the game looked to be going to OT....up until 10 seconds left when Thornton got his, and his team's, monkey off his back with his redirection amid a heavy mix of white and red in front of Miikka Kiprusoff.
When the Flames were up 2-1 with six minutes to go, I already knew what my blog title would be if they managed to hang on (IF, I wasn't being optimistic but call it a writer's instinct). It would be "How The Heck Did The Flames Win? Who Cares, They're Up 3-1!". As the CBC cameras focused on dejected Flames fans heading for the exits immediately after Thornton's certain game winner, the game was being declared a "stunner" for the Flames. I definitely won't deny that this game was a heartbreaker, the lopsidedness of the shot count nonwithstanding (this is the beauty of overtime: it renders everything accomplished in regulation, for better or worse, null and void. Yet the Flames could not quite get themselves that second chance). But, I think it would be downright foolish to suggest that the Flames deserved to win this game.
This was, quite simply, a one period effort. Mike Keenan looked angry after the first period, probably at the fact that the Flames only had two shots and had failed to do anything with a powerplay at the end of the period. But somehow, the Flames came out in the second and played even worse. This is what analysts call "having no urgency". The Flames' feet were completely set in concrete for the second and third, never truly regaining that speed advantage they had over the Sharks in the first. It was the first game all series where I could honestly say that the Flames did not keep pace with San Jose at all. The inconsistency of the Flames their fans knew all too well in the regular season reared its ugly head after three games. I just cannot wrap my head around how you can get only 10 shots in a game - a home playoff game no less - and still expect to win. The Sharks being hungrier than the Flames in an apparent must win game such as this, on itself is not surprising. But to overextend this hunger analogy, it's as if the Flames played the first period and said to San Jose, "No, I'm full, you eat the whole thing". And now the momentum shifts into the Shark Tank on Thursday night.
On perhaps a semi-optimistic note, this game reminded me of another Game 4. In the exact same building, against the exact same opponent, four years ago in the Western finals. Like this game, the Flames headed into the game with a 2-1 series lead. I attended this game, one of the two games I was able to attend during the 2004 run, and while the first game (Game 6 of the Wings series, no words needed) was the greatest hockey game I have ever seen in person, and the most exciting sporting event I have ever seen in person, Game 4 was the exact opposite. The Flames were embarrassed 5-2 and lost the series lead. And the jubilation I'd felt in Game 6 was countered by complete humiliation and even shame as the fans booed and threw things on the ice near the end of the game. As much as I hate to dwell on 2004 publicly, the fact is this game reminded me completely of that one, except the score was a lot closer. As you know, the Flames went back into the Shark Tank, and handled the Sharks easily 3-0 before winning the West at home in Game 6. Could history repeat itself?
This game was certainly a demoralizing heartbreaker, no matter how you slice it. But being outshot 32-10 will not do a team any favors. The Flames were outshot, outhit, outlucked (I was certain Daymond Langkow's crossbar was a goal when I saw it), and outsmarted (what was Langkow thinking when he gave the puck away to Cheechoo for the tying goal? Incidentally, the Sharks had more takeaways and less giveaways than Calgary). And this time, they got what they deserved. Flames fans can only hope that the Flames learn the same lessons they learned after the last Game 4 versus the Sharks, because the first four games of this series have shown, so far, that there will be no win robberies at the hands of a goaltender.
(Addendum: when losses like this happen, I don't like to point out specific players as only getting 10 shots on goal requires a very specially terrible team effort. But I will point out two, not blaming them for the loss...with each passing terrible mistake Adrian Aucoin makes - his worst was the shorthanded breakaway by the Sharks he was responsible for - I can see why Chicago traded him and his $4 million cap hit to Calgary for practically nothing. He's on the right path towards replacing David Hale and Anders Eriksson as my go-to, automatic-blame-regardless-of-whether-they're-on-the-ice defenceman, a position that was held first by Jordan Leopold, then Andrei Zyuzin, then Eriksson/Hale....Kristian Huselius was visible to me for the first time all series, really. But not in a good way....he was -2 and wasn't very smart with the puck. He needs to step up his play to try and shed the label of 'playoff flake' if he wants to get a $5 million a year UFA deal in the summer...but more importantly, so the Flames can win the series....and finally, I should have mentioned this in the main part of the post but the Flames would have finished with a lot more shots had they not missed so many... I don't understand how you can miss that many shots in a game and expect to win. How do you even miss that many shots - by the way, Daymond Langkow was the lead perpetrator with 4 missed. Probably a rhetorical question.)