Sunday, April 26, 2015

Five Keys from the Flames Biggest Win in Over a Decade... and Maybe Longer

Bob Hartley celebrates, picture by The Calgary Flames.

It was the biggest victory for the Calgary Flames in the last decade, for sure. And maybe longer.

Given how this upstart team has somehow managed to defy the odds and make it to the final eight in a season that they were supposed to finish in the bottom three, makes you wonder if it wasn't the biggest and most cherished victory by Flames fans in over a quarter century.

And on a Saturday night, no less. The Red Mile, by all reports, was electric.

I mean, there were some great wins in 2004 and that was a riveting ride that I thought at the time would never again be matched in terms of the Cinderella nature of it but my goodness, this is darn close.

Wherever you rank last night's 7-4 series-clinching game 6 win over the Vancouver Canucks on your personal list and it could very well be at the very top for those not old enough to remember 1989, we can all agree it was certainly one of the all-time greats, coming back from a 3-0 deficit less than 10 minutes into the game.

Here are my five keys to the game:

1. Engelland's Shift From Hell

Second period summary:
  • 1:02 - Sean Monahan scores to get the Flames to within one at 3-2.
  • 1:52 to 5:14 - Deryk Engelland guts out a 3:22 shift, the longest I've ever witnessed. The Canucks pour on the pressure but can't score.
  • 5:35 - Johnny Gaudreau scores for Calgary to tie the score 3-3. 

Epic. There's no better way to describe it. Engelland's average shift length was 42 seconds during the regular season. Saturday night -- at a critical juncture in the game, he ends up caught out on the ice for 3:22 or nearly five-times that. That one shift for the Flames No. 29 was longer than Tyler Wotherspoon (3:16) played in the entire game.

Four times during that spell the desperate Flames iced the puck. So concerned about how weary his players were, coach Bob Hartley called a time-out after the first icing at 2:52. Heck, at that point Engelland was just getting started.

He started the shift with TJ Brodie beside him and the line of Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett and Joe Colborne. He finished the shift with Kris Russell as his partner and the line of Josh Jooris, Brandon Bollig and Mason Raymond in front of him.

Stuck with the longest path to travel -- trapped on the opposite end to the Flames bench and on the opposite side of the ice also, the right defenceman just couldn't get to the bench no matter what. The home bench must have looked like it was located in Red Deer, it seemed so far away.

During that period of furious pressure for the Canucks, Vancouver had 10 shot attempts -- four shots on goal, five more blocked (two by Engelland) and one sailed wide.

Engelland played against all 18 Canucks skaters that shift including the Sedin-Sedin-Hansen line two separate times and the Verbata-Bonino-Baertschi line twice also. Vancouver nearly went through two full rotations of their three defence pairings.

Finally, Karri Ramo was able to smother an Alex Edler slapshot and get a whistle and to cheers from the appreciative crowd, Engelland dragged himself to the bench.

Then, merciless Flames TV host Kristin Hallett grabs Engelland to do the in-arena second intermission interview instead of allowing him to carry on to the trainer's room for his scheduled lung replacement.

When the game was over, the under-appreciated Engelland played 24:29, had three takeaways, zero giveaways, was a plus-one, had two hits and got his 6-foot-2, 215 pound carcass in front of a game-high 10 shots, just one shy of the 11 blocked shots the Canucks team had.

That much ice time was the third-highest in Engelland's career behind a playoff overtime game with Pittsburgh in 2013 (26:18) and Calgary's playoff spot-clinching win over Los Angeles on April 9 (25:17).

2. Hartley Pulls the Goalie Early

As decisive as the Canucks were in getting goals on consecutive shots -- their second and third of the game -- from Brandon McMillan and Jannik Hansen to grab a 2-0 lead 7:32 into the game, Hartley was just as quick with his decision to yank Jonas Hiller right then and there.

And when Radim Vrbata deflected Daniel Sedin's pass over Ramo to make it three on goals on four shots and a 3-0 lead, you wondered what Hartley had done.

Oh, he knew exactly what he was doing, as the veteran skipper explained post-game.

"I spend the entire day here. I'm here at 6:30 in the morning. I always prepare all kinds of scenarios. What happens if I lose a left winger? What happens if I lose a centre? What happens if a goaltender gets hurt or stuff like this. You need to have a plan and that's my job -- to have a plan," explained Hartley, who addressed the matter post-game with his players.

"I apologized to Jonas Hiller in front of the entire team. I didn't pull him because I felt it was his fault. I felt it wasn't a good start for us and I needed to jump-start. There was water in the fuel," Hartley continued. "We could have been up 3-0 before they scored their first goal. Miller made some unbelievable saves and they scored some nice goals and I said, there's no way that I'm going back to Vancouver. If we were going to Vancouver, I was going to go down swinging, not get caught looking. I was ready to try everything that I have in the book."

Ramo came in, stopped 17 of 19 including neatly poking the puck off the stick of Henrik Sedin as he burst in on net for what could have been the tying goal in the final minute.

"Sometimes changing the goalie, it changes the pace of the game and it creates a reaction from the players and our guys answered back," Hartley said.

It was the third time this season Calgary has won a game (plus also got one other to OT) after pulling its starting goaltender. The others:
  • Nov. 8 in Florida - Pulled Ramo down 4-3 in the second period, won 6-4
  • Feb. 16 vs Boston - Pulled Ramo down 3-0 in the second period, won 4-3 in OT
  • Mar. 8 in Ottawa - Pulled Ramo down 4-0 in the second period, lost 5-4 in OT

Picking up wins in these types of desperate scenarios are found money and those five points in the regular season ended up being integral in getting the Flames into the playoffs. Saturday night's win got Calgary into the second round for only the second time since 1989.

3. Stajan with the Emotional Game-Winner

What a moment for Matt Stajan. Just 14 months after the tragic death of his newborn son Emerson and after just recently becoming a father with his wife Katie to Elliot, Stajan notched the dramatic winning goal with 4:17 left in the third period.

After gobbling up an errant Edler pass in the neutral zone, David Jones bursts over the blue-line and lets a shot go that Ryan Miller can't handle. Micheal Ferland was stopped on the rebound but on the second rebound, Stajan corrals it, pauses, and looking more like Alex Ovechkin, wrists a perfect shot into the top corner touching off an eruption from the raucous C of Red.

"It's so special. It's been such a tough year for my family and this team's been great all year. We found a way and we found a way tonight to be a part of it. It's amazing," said Stajan.

Coming 11 years after Stajan's only other appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a three-game stint in his rookie season in Toronto, Hartley says his veteran centre is what this team is all about.

"Matt Stajan is a reflection of who we are as a team. A hard worker. Goes hard. You look at the winning goal. That's the Calgary Flames. That's the way we do business," said Hartley. "That's the way we cultivated our identity three years ago and we still have a long way to go to climb the mountain but I'm so proud of those guys. Everyone showed up. We tied the game, gave up a fourth one, we still keep going. Then in the third period, we were who we are. A bunch of young guys that go and have no fear and we don't care and we always find a way to get it done."

Centring Ferland and Jones, Stajan finished with a goal and two assists, his first three-point game in over a year and just his fourth in six seasons in Calgary.

It was Calgary's second third period comeback of the series, having also pulled out game one after trailing heading into the third period. It was a fitting conclusion to the series given the third period rallies all season -- 10 of them in total, third in the NHL -- were a staple of this team all season, which led radio colour commentator Peter Loubardias to dub them the 'Find-a-way Flames'.

(Must-Watch Video: Via, Stajan was Mic'd Up for game 6. Listen to him on the go-ahead goal. Next, listen to him during the post-game handshakes and follow him into the dressing room.) 

4. No. 1 Line Finally Erupts

For 16 periods, Calgary's top line failed to score an even-strength goal. They were being outplayed by the Canucks top line and it looked like their ill-timed slump might end up costing the Flames the series.

Monahan must be hurt was the swirling rumours. Surely Hudler must be also. After all, this was the NHL's top line for the final two months of the season and they were a collective minus-13 with just three power play goals to show for the first five games of the series.

Then, everything changed in a heartbeat and led by Hudler, who regained the form that had some people suggesting he could even be a Hart Trophy candidate.

At 1:02 of the second, Monahan scores from Hudler. At 5:35, Gaudreau scores on a set-up from Hudler. Then, tying the game 4-4 on the power-play at 6:14 of the third period was Hudler himself, this time set up by his two linemates, a goal that was greeted by a deafening roar from the sell-out crowd of 19,289.

The top line finishes the night with a combined 10 points, led by two goals and two assists for Hudler in the first four-point game of his career and from what my late-night research indicates is the first four-point night for a Flame since Lee Stempniak on March 9, 2012.

"We had a good game. That's what we've been trying to do all season but the playoffs are different," said Hudler. "You have tough games, they're going to match up against you. When Vancouver is at home, you have to play against great players -- the Sedins are world-class players and Edler and it's tough, but we got it done tonight."

5. Ferland: Punishing All Night, Punishing All Series

Forty hits in six games. That was the physical damage inflicted by rookie Micheal Ferland, who had seven in the clinching game to go along with two goals and one assist. The young man, who turned 23 during this series, not only launched his NHL career against Vancouver but he has solidified himself as an everyday NHL player with his combination of grit, smarts, speed and offence.

The one-on-one battle over the past two weeks against Kevin Bieksa, who early in the series referred to him as "irrelevant" turned into a grudge match right out of the 80s and the old Smythe Division wars with the Oilers. Eight of Ferland's hits were against Bieksa himself. Along with those were several verbal jabs and a few of the non-verbal variety to at the end of game three.

NHL Hits Leaders - After Saturday's Games:

1. Matt Martin NYI, 45
2. Micheal Ferland CGY, 40
3. Cal Clutterbuck NYI, 37
4. Bryan Bickell CHI, 35
5. Brooks Orpik WSH, 34

It was Ferland's first playoff goal on a beautifully threaded pass by Stajan late in the first period that got the comeback started.

"That's just the way we play. Never give up," said Ferland. "We just wanted to stick with it. In the back of our minds, we knew we were going to get something going here. It feels so good to get that win."

Ferland's second goal came into an empty net with three seconds left. At that point, the Saddledome crowd -- as loud as I recall a crowd ever being -- had already been on its feet for several minutes.

"Let's give credit also to our fans. I've never seen this. I've been in great markets. I remember winning the Stanley Cup in Colorado. To see every fan with the Flaming C, wearing it proudly, you almost feel that they're on the bench," said Hartley. "We had to yell our line changes in the third period when we took the lead. We couldn't communicate. It's their passion for our team and it's our relationship."

Spend your Sunday soaking up that victory, Flames fans. After all, you were a big part of it.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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