Although six games had me in a brief fantasy, in reality, I have been waiting to write this post since mid-March, just as the Calgary Herald's Bruce Dowbiggin is undoubtedly rubbing his hands in glee as he writes his long awaited blasting of Darryl Sutter that I think is a good bet to appear in tomorrow's paper. The Calgary Flames have been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third straight year, by the San Jose Sharks in the most pathetic Game 7 effort I have seen since, well, two years ago against the Anaheim Ducks, in the Flames' first opening round loss after coming within a goal of winning the Cup itself in 2004. And after tonight's game, Flames fans should be asking themselves: was that really four years ago? Yes, it was, any remnants of a "grace period" are shattered, and it's time to face the cold future for the Flames.
Sunday's Game 6 was agreed upon to be an inspired effort by the Flames. They staved off elimination at home with a dominating 2-0 win. Sure, San Jose had their feet in cement all game, but everything went right for the Flames and it appeared they had momentum and could win the series. Personally, I went into tonight's game fully prepared to win or lose, but if the Flames could play the way they had in most of the series, I did expect a great Game 7, for better or for worse.
If. If, if, if, if. Of course, that had to mean, after six games in which they seemed to have shed their regular-season shell of inconsistency, save for a pathetic Game 4 effort, that their ugly shadow had to rear its head at the worst possible time, in the most critical game of the year. The first five minutes were dominated by the Sharks, there was no urgency from the Flames at all, as if they held the same mindset as those Flames fans that wrote to the Herald's letters section after last year's humiliation at the hands of Detroit saying that the Flames had a "great run" and that they should be "proud to have forced such a team to six hard games" (I know for certain the first quote was printed in the bastion of stupidity that is the Herald letters section), as if the Flames were merely satisfied with forcing the powerhouse Sharks to a seventh game. Hey, we've already outdone our team from last year, what does it matter if we lose? Joe Thornton, who had for the most part been completely shut down by the Flames up to that point, was left wide open at the side of the net during a power play stemming from an Anders Erikkson penalty, and buried it despite the best efforts of Miikka Kiprusoff. But the Flames rebounded as they had done. Jarome Iginla tipped in the tying goal on their own powerplay and survived the first with a 1-1 tie. They even took the lead on an Owen Nolan breakaway early in the second, before the season came crashing down in a spectacular eight minute collapse that exposed every single one of the Flames' weaknesses.
The turning point of this game, and the one that raises significant questions about something that is usually considered one of the Flames' biggest strengths, came when Jeremy Roenick tied the game on a soft shot from the blueline less than 3 minutes after Nolan's goal. At first when I saw it, I thought Kiprusoff had been screened, or the puck had been tipped by Devon Setoguchi, but upon closer look, it was a complete sieve goal, an ice level shot that slipped straight between his pads. From this point on, the Flames were completely demoralized, and the game was 4-2 by the 14 minute mark. Mike Keenan made the controversial decision of replacing Kipper with Curtis Joseph, in the hopes of sparking a comeback like that of Game 3, but it was all for naught as poor Cujo, thrust into the hero's role, allowed another softie. Despite Wayne Primeau getting the Flames within two with 11 minutes left, the Flames were never truly in the game after Roenick's first goal.
A tradition of mine, one I'm sure I share with many other fans, is to individually list off players on my team and decide their worth after frustrating season-ending losses. I do it with the Stamps, I do it with the Flames. Usually, I can look back on what I said and realize half of it was irrational frustration, but this game was an especially alarming game because virtually every member of the Calgary Flames, from the ice to the front office, can be held significantly accountable this time. The thing that really raises the alarm bell is the goaltending, although it is very important to note that this is just one issue out of many with the utterly mediocre Flames, and it is not even close to being necessarily major. It's just something that was perhaps the story of the loss.
For the first half of the season, I had laughed off Eastern Conference based NHL analysts and fans who were criticizing Miikka Kiprusoff for his early struggles in the net, and wondering about Darryl Sutter's decision to sign him to a six year contract with a $5.8 million cap hit. Tonight, for the first time since the original trade in November 2003 that brought the Finn to Calgary, I am genuinely doubting Kiprusoff. Much will be made of Mike Keenan's decision to pull Kipper instead of just calling a timeout, but be honest here. While I still don't think any of the Game 3 goals were Kipper's fault, the first Roenick goal was a Patrick Lalime-like sieve at the worst possible time, and perhaps the second one. Tonight, I fully realized the luxury the Detroit Red Wings have in having two top-ten goaltenders in their net, and indeed most analysts agreed that the turning point of the Wings' victory over Nashville came when they replaced Dominek Hasek with Chris Osgood. It was a great sign in Game 3, perhaps, that the Flames indeed had a one two punch in the net, but that idea was shattered when Joseph allowed a soft goal on the first shot he faced. Anybody reading this, do not interpret this as saying I am completely blaming the goaltenders for the game. The rest of the Flames' awful effort has separate paragraphs in this post. But the fact remains: the final score was 5-3. Without the first Roenick goal and Setoguchi goal, the game could be in overtime as I'm typing this.
Of course, I am a big picture type of person, and I've always felt it's a bit cowardly to solely blame the goalie for a bad performance. I mentioned before that the Flames had their feet in cement until Iginla's goal. Overall, I'd say that they only really were the team of Games 1, 3 and 6 after Iginla's goal, but it ended with the Roenick goal. Sure, the Flames made it interesting with Wayne Primeau's goal in the third, but by that time there was no way the Sharks would be denied, as they had completely clamped down defensively, barely even aggressive enough to get a good shot on the Flames' empty net. It was an order restoring game, and the sort of game all pessimists such as myself had expected the series to be from the start. The Sharks outshot the Flames 41-22, Anders Erikkson returned to his usual role as a defensive goat after a brief appearance in the limelight in Game 6, Kristian Huselius continued to lower his free agent stock with a non appearance, none of the Flames' secondary players were there, again, and they couldn't get away with it because the most shocking thing happened: the Great Wall of Kipper dissolved.
Was it really four years ago that the Flames came within a goal - not even that, within INCHES - of shocking the hockey world and winning it all? This is a rhetorical question. Here's another one: did the Carolina Hurricanes say in 2006 after a first round loss, was it really four years ago that we went on a Cinderella run and got to the Finals? Did the Anaheim Ducks say last year after a first round loss, was it really four years ago that we came within a game of winning the Cup? The answer is obviously, of course not, they actually won the thing, and not with another miracle run. And guess what, it's also been four years since the Flames went on a Cinderella run, and it's no fluke that they were the only team of those three to not be able to finish the job.
This is everyone's fault. I've broken barriers by criticizing Miikka Kiprusoff for the first time I can remember. Now I'll do something even more unprecedented, although it was an inevitability if the Flames lost this series. I am now willing to criticize Darryl Sutter. I will never forget that the man single handedly saved this franchise, I will never forget his brilliance in 2004, and I am extremely grateful that he has locked up the Flames' still excellent foundation. But, quite bluntly, the man needs to change his philosophy. It was pointed out in a pre-series article in the Herald that despite Sutter saying that the Flames had to get younger and faster after 2004, they have gone in the complete opposite direction. Of all the past-their-prime veterans he has signed since the lockout ended, only Owen Nolan truly met expectations (on that topic, the look on his face during the handshakes was heartbreaking after such a great veteran effort this series. I hope he's back next year, whether it be with the Flames or a team that can actually contend.) After every trade in 2004 he touched turned to gold, he has gone on a bit of a cold streak. His only real successful major trade since then has been the Daymond Langkow deal with Phoenix (I'd include the Kristian Huselius robbery in here were it not for two things: 1. Mike Keenan was the other GM involved in that trade, and 2. Huselius' playoff performance showed he is not an elite player). And the major trades he has made have been disastrous, first there was the Steve Reinprecht-for-Mike Leclerc deal in 2006, then the disastrous Brad Stuart rental deal a year later which irrevocably killed any team chemistry. He has essentially held control of the franchise since 2004. When he stepped down in 2006 to focus on the front office, he handed the keys to assistant Jim Playfair. When Playfair proved too inexperienced for the players to listen to him, he shocked the hockey world by hiring somewhat disgraced coach Mike Keenan to kick some sense into the Flames. Overall, I can't really blame Keenan for the Flames' performance this season; he did not have a very good roster and it seems like he's realized that Darryl is the only GM crazy enough to hire him, as his antics have considerably cooled down to his goaltending eccentricities. However, the fact is: this team was no better than Playfair's disaster and were even more inconsistent. Optimists pointed out Keenan was a short term hiring to bring the Flames a Cup, but quite simply they never even were close to being contenders, and now I don't think it can be denied: let the rebuild begin. The draft and offseason this year is absolutely crucial if the Flames want to win a Cup in the next five years.
It is undoubtedly a pretty hard accomplishment to make the playoffs four years in a row in the NHL, or any sports league for that matter. But there's a huge difference between being a playoff contender and being a Cup contender. The Flames have steadily decreased from the latter role. Hopefully, the profits reaped by three playoff games and thousands of jersey sales won't be satisfying enough for Flames management. I know it won't be for me. The Flames are the very definition of an utterly mediocre team, but unless Darryl can pull a Paul Holmgren this summer (congratulations to the Flyers, by the way, who did tonight what the Flames could have done if their goaltending had been right) they will be quite lucky to make the playoffs in 2008-2009. This was only Part 1 of my rant. As early as tomorrow, I will write a more detailed look at the Flames, piece by piece, player by player, and analyze their looming rebuild. But tonight? It is just pure frustration and resignation.
(Addendum: Sharks fans reading this, I sincerely apologize for not acknowledging your team's supreme effort tonight. I can't honestly say whether I'll be able to cheer for you, persay - based on nothing more than the bitterness of losing - but I do wish you luck in Round 2 and the rest of the playoffs. You genuinely played like the Cup contenders you should be. I merely focused this blog post on why the Flames lost, and the impact this loss has on the franchise, but now that I am finishing up this long rant I realize I didn't give you enough credit. I was originally planning to mention as a negative comment how Jeremy Roenick outplayed Jarome Iginla, but that's the magic of the playoffs, new heroes are born every game. As severely disappointed in the Flames' effort I was tonight, and thought this series was a legitimate choke by the Flames, the fact was the better team won. Congratulations.)