The endgame has arrived for the 2007-2008 Calgary Flames. Despite arguably their best team effort all series, the Flames fell in San Jose, 4-3, a frustrating loss that has put them facing first-round elimination for the third straight year on Sunday night at the 'Dome. This loss wasn't as disheartening as the Game 4 disaster on Tuesday. But perhaps, tonight's game showed one thing that most analysts predicted would result in a short series: the Sharks are simply the better team, and to beat them in a seven game series requires more than just superhuman performances from Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla.
The first period was nothing special, although it was obviously better than Tuesday's two shot effort. The Flames outshot the Sharks 11-5, and although most of those shots were soft dribblers meant to force a faceoff in the Sharks' zone, they survived the period anyway. In the second period, Iginla opened the scoring on a 5-on-3 one timer. Joe Pavelski tied it for the Sharks six minutes later on their own 5-on-3. The turning point of the game came at 18:07 when Patrick Marleau blasted a quick shot over Kipper's glove to give the Sharks the lead. The Flames could not recover, as Jonathon Cheechoo's two third period goals were the difference despite Daymond Langkow and David Moss' late efforts.
Game 4 was a heartbreaker, but Game 5 was simply frustrating. The Flames outshot the Sharks - 36-26 - for the first time in the series, and one could argue it was their most complete effort. But it simply wasn't enough. The Sharks' big three of Joe Thornton, Marleau and Cheechoo have emerged from the shadows after three games with monkeys on their backs, and quite simply, the Flames' quartet of Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf and Kipper is not enough to stop the Sharks' big guns from beating them. Instead, it's very simple, some secret weapons have to come out for the Flames.
A common criticism of the Flames is that outside of whatever line Jarome Iginla is on, they are a one line team. Oh, did that criticism show its merit tonight. Unless Kristian Huselius pulls off a complete 360 in his play, I'll be overjoyed to lose him to a stupid GM who gives him a $5 million a year contract after July 1st. The Flames' second-leading scorer in the regular season has just two assists, three shots on goal and is -3 over five playoff games. This year is his prime opportunity to shed his label of "playoff flake" and presumably prove to GMs across the league that he is worth a big contract come Canada Day. Alas, I now see what caused Mike Keenan to ship him out of Florida for a bag of peanuts in the first place. Before, I wasn't fully convinced of the criticism that Huselius disappeared in the playoffs, now I endorse it 100%.
Moving on from players who weren't expected to do much to players who should be, I am extremely disappointed in Alex Tanguay. I convinced myself at the trade deadline that he was, in fact, better than Huselius, and a major reason why was his playoff statistics. He was one of the more experienced players in the Flames in the playoffs, including his rookie year when he posted 23 points and the Stanley Cup-winning goal, and had put up decent stats in his two first-round exits with the Flames. But this year, Tanguay has been just as much of a ghost as Huselius.
There are other players I could criticize for their performance in this series (a certain speedy French-Canadian forward also comes to mind, although my problem with him extends beyond the playoffs), but I think such detailed criticism should be saved for if the Flames indeed lose this series. As pessimistic or discouraged I might be right now, I have to remember the series is not over yet; the Flames have perhaps the only advantage the underdog team has in a seven game series, and that's hosting Game 6. Another advantage is that there is a two day break to mull things over, unlike last year where Games 5 and 6 were on Saturday and Sunday.
I will not formally declare a doom situation for the Flames right now. I still honestly believe in my mind, after witnessing their efforts four out of the last five games (forgetting Game 4 ever happened...), that they can come back and win this series. However, suffice to say there is absolutely no room for error; Games 2 and 5 have proven there will be no fluke wins in this series, and that the Sharks are not a team to be denied when they are clearly playing better. An effort like tonight's is a good try but simply not enough. There has to be an extra mile, to use a cliche. Game 6 has to be a perfect home game. The Flames need the secondary scoring they've lacked all series, with the exception of Game 1 and one goal in Game 3 and late in game 5, they need to return to their perfect forechecking/backchecking game (I'm too lazy to look it up on ESPN.com right now but I'm fairly certain each team that has had more takeaways and less giveaways each game has won, surprise, surprise), and they have to derail at least one car in the Marleau-Thornton-Cheechoo train. I still think they can do it, but it's going to be a gargantuan task.
Before writing my post game thoughts tonight, I read gosharks19's pre-game post. In it, he posted that he felt good "to win a game like that, giving the other team and fans a feeling of heartbreak that has long been felt in San Jose." referring to the Game 4 stunner that left the Sea of Red dead silent. Well, in that vein, the Flames now have to do to the Sharks what the Lightning and Ducks did to them in 2004 and 2006: come off the ropes and stun them in Game 6 before breaking their hearts in Game 7. Talk about exorcising your demons.