I had the privilege of attending both Game 1 of the Calgary Flames‘ first-round series against the Dallas Stars on May 3, and just last night, the opener of the Flames’ second round “Battle of Alberta” vs. the Edmonton Oilers. I don’t think I’ve ever watched two more diametrically opposite events in my life. The only thing I could say after the final horn blew on a stunning 9-6 Calgary victory was: “What in the world did I just witness?”
Hockey fans in Alberta were forced to wait 31 long years for these two teams to finally hook up again in a Stanley Cup playoff series and I must say, Game 1 of the latest instalment of this classic rivalry was one for the ages… and well worth the wait. This tilt had a bit of everything – loads of goals, huge hits, and a crazy intense atmosphere in the building. There was only one thing missing: any semblance of good goaltending.
Flames Got off to a Lightning Fast Start
The entire first-round series against the Stars was a really tough slog. Goals were impossibly hard to come by, the Stars played a smothering style of defence, and they benefitted from an otherworldly performance from their 23-year-old netminder. In Game 1 of the Flames-Oilers series, Calgary found themselves in some weird “upside-down world”, as the exact opposite unfolded in the opening minutes of the contest. Just 26 seconds into the first frame, Elias Lindholm scored his fourth of the postseason to get the party started at Scotiabank Saddledome.
Fans in the C of Red barely had a chance to sit back down in their seats before Andrew Mangiapane struck again just 25 seconds later after a hardworking shift from the second line. The Flames just kept on coming, as they hemmed the Oilers in their zone and kept the visitors from registering a shot for the first five minutes. Then, it was the fourth line’s turn to get on the board, as Brett Ritchie made it 3-0 for the boys in red just six minutes into the game.
To put the Flames’ hot start into perspective, it took Calgary three games to score three goals on the Stars’ Jake Oettinger. It only took them six minutes against the Oilers’ Mike Smith. After Smith let in three on 10 shots, he was yanked in favor of Mikko Koskinen, but the veteran backup didn’t fare much better. In fact, all three of the goaltenders featured in this contest had pretty terrible outings.
Goaltending Was a Huge Issue for Both the Flames and Oilers
When the Flames got out to an early 3-0 lead, I almost penciled in the “W” right then and there. Why? Well, Jacob Markstrom was fresh off setting a franchise record for the lowest save percentage in a playoff series. Of course, he was going to shut the door with a three-goal lead. This was the same guy who won Game 1 against the Stars with a 1-0 shutout. Boy, was I wrong. After taking a supposedly safe 3-1 lead into the second period, Calgary’s netminder completely unraveled.
The second frame started off much like the first: with a couple of quick goals (courtesy of Blake Coleman) to make it 5-1 for the home team. However, that’s precisely when the wheels fell off the Flames’ defensive game and Markstrom somehow lost his ability to bail his team out. Four second-period goals by the Oilers closed the gap to 6-5, and Calgary’s usually dependable netminder let in a very uncharacteristic five goals on 18 shots.
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I was actually wondering if Flames’ head coach Darryl Sutter might start Dan Vladar for the third period. Yes, that’s how shaky Markstrom looked. Meanwhile, the Oilers’ Koskinen managed to hold off Calgary’s relentless attack at times, but he faltered in the final frame after his team clawed back to tie the game up at 6-6 just a minute-and-a-half into the third. This thoroughly unimpressive display of netminding in Game 1 was actually quite surprising, as both Smith and Markstrom had very strong opening rounds.
Flames Proved They Could Win Ugly
I don’t think anyone was surprised by how incredibly stingy the Flames played in their first-round series against Dallas. After all, isn’t that what “Sutter-style hockey” is all about? So, what happened to that impeccable defensive readiness in Game 1 against Edmonton? The home team gave up way too many high-danger chances to a team fully capable of scoring in bunches. Maybe they missed the steadying influence of their best defender: the injured Chris Tanev?
Maybe they were simply mentally exhausted from a grueling first-round series where even the smallest mistake could have cost you the game? Regardless of the reason, the Flames found themselves in a real Wild West shootout on Wednesday night, but the important thing was, that they didn’t let the second period collapse cost them the entire game. Instead, guys like Matthew Tkachuk stepped up big time to close it out.
After the Oilers tied the contest 6-6 early in the final period, Tkachuk scored twice to seal the 9-6 victory and secure a 1-0 series lead. After the ugly win, the Flames head coach had six simple words to start his postgame presser: “Take the win and move on.”
The surly bench boss was in no mood to try and find the positives from a game the Flames almost let slip through their fingers after enjoying a 5-1 lead. In fact, he got more than a little sarcastic with reporters about the Game 1 barnburner.
“We were told that it was a boring series last time so I told the players yesterday we’ve got to score 7 to 10 goals today, knowing full well that they’d probably score 5 to 8, and then we could win,” Sutter said. “So that’s what we did.”
Expect a Much Tighter Game 2 From the Flames and Oilers
With so many legendary battles between these two provincial rivals ingrained in our collective memory, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the opening game of the first “Battle of Alberta” since 1991 was completely bananas. Chants of “we want 10!” could be heard from the crowd, but maybe a more fitting rallying call would have been “we’ll need 10!” There were 15 goals scored on Wednesday night and to put that into perspective (again), the 15th goal in the Dallas series wasn’t scored until the second period of Game 5.
I’m quite positive that Markstrom will be better, Smith will be better, and both defences will be better. As much fun as 9-6 games are to watch, I’m predicting we will see a tight-checking, low-scoring contest when these two combatants meet again on Friday night for Game 2. If we don’t, we might be subjected to even more biting sarcasm from Sutter…which actually wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.