Two games under the .500 mark and with the sand in the hourglass gradually diminishing, the Calgary Flames hoped to gain some clarity on their season with two weekend games at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The worst-case outcome would drop the Flames to the NHL’s basement. The best-case outcome would bump them closer to the playoff pack. In this case, clarity came in the form of a weekend sweep and a pair of wins in very close, competitive games.
SATURDAY: CALGARY 3, MINNESOTA 1
It was Retro Night in the Saddledome as the Flames and Wild clashed on Saturday evening. While the music and theatrics surrounding the game were definitely a throw-back, the on-ice product was precisely what fans were expecting heading in – tight-checking and low-scoring.
In a continuation of his strong play this season, Matt Stajan was the star of the night. The center potted two goals – the game-winner and the empty-net insurance marker – as the Flames skated to a 3-1 win. The game-winner was by no means a pretty one, but rather a product of three or four whacks at a rebound from Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom.
“That’s a scramble goal and there’s so many goals in this league like that. The majority of goals are rebounds and plays like that,” said Stajan following Saturday’s win over the Wild.
Flames head coach Bob Hartley described the pace of the game as a “ping pong match,” but praised his team for taking over the game in the third period. Calgary were out-shot 11-9 in the final frame but scored twice and generally carried the play.
“I felt towards the end of the second period our team had good legs, at least from the bench,” said Hartley. “We just told them to keep applying good pressure and to put pucks at the net, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Newly arrived netminder Joey MacDonald continued his strong efforts, making 30 saves for his second win as a Flame. For the second straight game, an opposition forward crashed into MacDonald – against Los Angeles it was Trevor Lewis, on Saturday it was Jason Zucker. For the second straight game, there was no physical retribution from the Flames for that transgression despite the Flames recalling the physical Akim Aliu from the AHL.
“That’s something I hope that the league is going to be looking at,” said Hartley. “Not from the standpoint of Joey MacDonald, but the blue paint is almost a toll booth right now. Players, they cut in, they just drive those nets. There’s already been a few goalies getting injured because of contact. Kipper is one of them. I think that has to stop. Maybe a two-minute penalty is just not enough.”
Returning to the Flames line-up was rookie Sven Baertschi, who had missed 11 games with a hip flexor injury. The Swiss native had 2 shots on goal but was held off the score-sheet in 13:20 of ice-time.
SUNDAY: CALGARY 5, PHOENIX 4
In terms of tone and pace of play, the Flames and Coyotes took a page out of the previous evening’s playbook. In most every way, Sunday’s affair was another ping-pong match. The lead changed hands five times, but Calgary clawed their way back to .500 with two goals in the final 93 seconds to capture a 5-4 win over Phoenix.
Flames captain Jarome Iginla – with just one goal on 59 shots heading into the game – scored twice, including the tying goal. Curtis Glencross scored 33 seconds later to give the Flames the victory. The goals put Iginla two points behind former Flames captain Theoren Fleury on the NHL’s all-time leaderboard.
“It went off the top of my stick,” said Iginla of his game-tying goal. “And I went from ‘oh my God’…and then it hit me in the belly or something and went in. It was definitely a good break. It was a great pass, but it feels good to get those breaks and more importantly just to get the tying goal and even better feeling to see that winner in regulation.”
The Flames out-shot the Coyotes by a 31-27 margin overall, but the game was punctuated by a one-sided second period featuring four Phoenix power-plays – including a one-minute, 43-second two-man advantage. The team’s penalty-kill entered the game ranked 28th in the NHL, but held the Coyotes to a single goal on an odd-bounce off of a draw.
“I was pretty sad that they scored that quick goal on the face-off because I felt five-on three, they have some great shooters, they move the puck well, and our guys did a great job of taking shooting lanes away. Our commitment to blocking shots certainly took lots of passing lanes and lots of shots to the net. I think that we’re showing improvement in our penalty killing,” said Hartley after Sunday’s game.
Flames forward Roman Cervenka returned to the line-up after being scratched from Saturday’s game, playing in place of a banged-up Akim Aliu. Cervenka had an assist on Tim Jackman’s first period goal, but only played 2:57 on the night, in part due to the penalty-filled second period throwing lines out of whack and the coaches shortening the bench in the third period.
Joey MacDonald made 23 saves for his third win with the Flames – and second in just over 24 hours – giving him the lead among Calgary net-minders in victories this season.
A LEAP FORWARD?
Had the Flames lost both weekend games – and let’s face it, with their home record that wouldn’t have been entirely unexpected – they would enter Monday morning just a single point ahead of Columbus for last place in the NHL. With a pair of regulation wins in roughly 28 hours, the Flames crept to within two points of the Western Conference’s last playoff spot.
Heading into the late stages of Sunday’s game, with Phoenix holding a one-goal lead and the Flames being out-shot 14-3 in the period, a lot of observers may have written the game off. Heck, a fair amount of fans were headed towards the exits and hoping to get home in time to catch some last-minute dramatics on the Oscar telecast. But the Flames dug in and out-shot the Coyotes when the chips were down, and came from behind for a much-needed win.
Have the Flames turned a corner? Not necessarily. But the four points they earned have given them some breathing room and some much-needed momentum heading into the last few days of February.