Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Decisive Dozen: 12 Regular Season Games That Made the Difference in 2014-15

The Calgary Flames are about to conclude what has easily been the most compelling, thrilling and entertaining regular seasons in over 20 years.

It's been a heart-stopping year that in every shape and form has been like a ride on a roller coaster. It's been winding with several ups and downs. It's been frightening some of the time, thrilling most of the time. It's left you giddy with laughter at times but also wanting to puke from stress at other times. Featuring screams of joy but also screams of despair. Now it's nearly over and damn it, it's gone by too fast. As a fan, you don't want the adrenaline to stop, you want to stay on and keep riding it.

Well, the good news is the fun will start up again soon and I don't see any reason why the journey over the next couple weeks in a playoff meeting with the rival Vancouver Canucks will be any different. It will be a shorter ride, for sure, but it doesn't need to be any less thrilling. But before we sit back down again, lock the safety bar in front of us and pull our arms back inside the car, let's revisit the dozen most impactful games of the 2014-15 regular season.

Here they are in chronological order.

12 Games that Made the Difference

Note: Click the score to watch highlights from that game, courtesy of video from

1. October 19, 2014 - Flames win 4-1 in Winnipeg

It wasn't the start to his rookie season that fans were hoping for, nor Johnny Gaudreau was used to. No points in his first five games. Averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time during the first three stops of a six-game road trip, that dropped to 10:31 in Chicago and and he was jettisoned to the press box two nights later in Columbus. The hope was viewing the game from high above would help Gaudreau out and sure enough, he took a very student-like approach to it and sat upstairs with his eyes wide open, ready to learn.

Back in the line-up, Gaudreau scored the go-ahead goal on a nifty wraparound at 10:12 of the second. On his next shift, he neatly set up Mason Raymond to make it 3-1. That game sent the Flames back home with an impressive four wins on the trip, a 4-3-0 record overall, and it was the launch of a sensational season for Gaudreau, who would go on to have the best rookie year Calgary had seen in 25 years.

2. November 2, 2014 - Flames win 6-2 in Montreal

Sitting at 6-4-2, a surprisingly nice start to the season, Calgary headed onto the road and opened up a five-game road trip against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, who just defeated the Flames 2-1 five days earlier at the Saddledome. What a dominating performance Calgary turned in at the Bell Centre.

They outshot Montreal 19-4 in the first period and took a 2-0 lead on goals by Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund. Max Pacioretty got the Canadiens on the scoreboard early in the third but Jooris added his second and Lance Bouma scored to make it 5-1 and blow it open. The impact the first-year players had on this game would be one of the storylines for the entire season as Calgary would finish with 46 goals from rookies, the most since since 1996-97 when they got 50 (Jarome Iginla 21, Jonas Hoglund 19, Joel Bouchard 4, Chris O'Sullivan 2, Todd Simpson 1, Cale Hulse 1, Dale McTavish 1, Hnat Domenichelli 1)

3. November 22, 2014 - Flames win 5-4 vs New Jersey

It was just game No. 22 but in running their record to 13-7-2, it was already the fifth time Calgary had come back to win a game in which it trailed after two periods. And this was no ordinary comeback either. For the first time in franchise history, the Flames scored twice with the goalie pulled to get back to even.

Bob Hartley pulled Karri Ramo with about three-and-a-half minutes to go and it led to Jiri Hudler's goal at 17:38 that got Calgary within one. With Ramo out again, Curtis Glencross fired in the dramatic tying goal from a scramble in front with five seconds left. Hudler would score the winner in the shootout as it became abundantly clear that the Flames demonstrated that they should never be underestimated when they're down in the third period.

4. December 22, 2014 - Flames win 4-3 in Los Angeles

To this day, Flames players insist they did not play that poorly over the two week period of December 6-20, but what they were unable to do was win a single game. That left them out of a playoff spot and three points behind the Kings, who at the time occupied the second wild card spot. In fact, Calgary collected only one point during that span. After seven straight regulation losses, the Flames got the loser point in a 3-2 overtime loss in Vancouver 48 hours earlier.

The night would not start out very well, Trevor Lewis scoring from a bad angle on Jonas Hiller 2:26 into the game. Trailing 3-0, Gaudreau got Calgary within two on a goal late in the second period, then it was time for more late game dramatics. With Hiller pulled for an extra attacker, Gaudreau scored with 2:12 left to get within one. Completing his first career hat-trick, Gaudreau then scored a lucky goal when his centring pass caromed in off the skate of Drew Doughty to tie it at 19:01. In overtime, Mark Giordano scored arguably the biggest goal of the season at 4:07 to complete the comeback, snap the eight-game winless skid, snap Jonathan Quick's stick -- although that was his doing, and send Calgary into the Christmas break on a high and with a 18-15-3 record.

5. January 10, 2015 - Flames win 1-0 in Vancouver

The Flames were reeling. After winning their first three games after Christmas, they just dropped three straight on home ice, the last of them being an ugly 6-5 setback to the Florida Panthers on Friday night in which Hiller gave up six goals on 35 shots. With Ramo hurt, Hartley decides to turn to Joni Ortio the next night in Vancouver, a building the Flames hadn't won in since Dec. 23, 2011.

What a decision that turned out to be. Calgary gets a first period goal from Mikael Backlund and that would be all it would take. Despite being outshot 36-23, Ortio was absolutely terrific and Calgary gets the much-needed victory to improve to 22-18-3. Ortio ends up recording the most saves in a shutout for a Flames rookie since Reggie Lemelin had 40 in 1980-81 -- the team's first season in Calgary after relocating from Atlanta.

6. January 19, 2015 - Flames win 2-1 in Los Angeles

Making his fourth start in a row, Ortio makes it four wins in a row in yet another thrilling and pivotal comeback at the Staples Center. On this night, the Kings were better, running up a 27-9 advantage on the shot clock after two periods but as they had a habit of doing all season, Calgary hung around as the game remained scoreless.

In the third period, Jarret Stoll on a deflection put the Kings in front at 10:23 but Sean Monahan tied it on a partial breakaway with six minutes left. That set the stage for one of the more bizarre and most terrific game-winning goal reactions.

In the final minute of overtime, Dennis Wideman cranked a shot that he initially thinks is in as he puts his arms up but then wonders about as play continues with officials and pretty much everyone else watching thought the puck hit the crossbar and came out. It wasn't until after the next stoppage that video review confirmed the puck went off the camera in the back of the net instead and when the referee declared it was a good goal, Wideman's euphoric reaction, as he stood on the bench, was one of the best reactions I've ever seen.

The win improved Calgary's record to 25-18-3 as the Flames were back in a playoff spot after spending all but one day (New Year's Day) on the outside during the five week period of December 15 to January 17.

7. February 2, 2015 - Flames win 5-2 over Winnipeg

Up until this point, Hudler, Monahan and Gaudreau had seen a little bit of time together as a line but not very much and it had been sporadic. It was on this night that Hartley put those three back together and kept them together. They weren't a huge factor on this evening with David Jones, Raymond, Raphael Diaz and Brandon Bollig with his first of the year, accounting for four of the goals as Calgary improved to 28-20-3. The one goal that line did collaborate on was an empty-netter by Monahan, but what a formidable trio they would turn out to be moving forward.

They stayed as a line for the entire month of February and other than the first two games of March when Hartley temporarily broke them up, Hudler-Monahan-Gaudreau were together the rest of the season and have been the best line in the NHL. You can talk about the difference the defencemen have made in stepping up in Giordano's absence -- the play of Wideman and Kris Russell, Deryk Engelland taking on seven additional minutes per night, but that line has been dynamite also. In 20 games without the Flames captain, Hudler (12-16), Monahan (10-10) and Gaudreau (9-11) combined for 31 goals and 68 points.

8. February 16, 2015 - Flames win 4-3 over Boston

It was a comeback for the ages once again. On this night, Calgary fell behind 2-0 after the first period then found themselves behind 3-0 on Torey Krug's goal in the opening minute of the second. At the time, when leading by three goals in a game, Boston's record was 91-1-1 going back to 2011.

But, historic stats and seemingly impassable hurdles don't mean much to the Flames. Trailing 3-1 headed to the third, Hudler scores at 3:22 and Hudler scored again at 14:51 on a power play to tie the game. The raucous sell-out crowd of 19,289 then erupted when the Flames won it with two seconds left in overtime. Brodie flings the puck towards the net from the corner and a couple bizarre bounces later it ended up behind Tuukka Rask. It was Calgary's 10th third period comeback and improved their record to 32-22-3.

9. March 5, 2015 - Flames win 4-3 in Boston

In the third game without Girodano, lost for the season, the Flames were coming off a win but that was in Philadelphia against the fledgling Flyers. This was going to be a much stiffer test against a playoff team in the Bruins and in a building in which Boston had outscored Calgary 16-0 in the previous three games.

After trying Corey Potter the previous two games, waiver pick-up David Schlemko made his debut as Hartley tries to mend the massive hole left on the blue-line by Giordano. It would turn out to be a back-and-forth game. Boston taking the lead twice but Calgary answering back to tie it both times. Playing in front of a bunch of his pals from Boston College, Gaudreau gives the Flames the lead in the third only for Boston to tie it once more. The game went to a shootout and a dramatic one. With nobody able to score through the first six rounds, Patrice Bergeron puts the Bruins up but a dandy goal by Jooris keeps the game going. After Milan Lucic was stopped by Ramo, Schlemko became a cult hero with a shootout goal that was so spectacular, I wrote an entire story about it right here.

10. March 8, 2015 - Flames lose 5-4 (OT) in Ottawa

It's the only game on the list that wasn't a victory, but it my as well have been. Having been out on the road for over two weeks while The Brier was going on in Calgary, the trade deadline had happened, Giordano suffered a season-ending injury, it was about as draining of a trip physically, emotionally and mentally as a trip could be. With four wins already chalked up on the seven-game getaway, it was not a surprise to see Calgary -- anxious to get back home, seemingly run out of gas in falling behind 4-0 to the Senators just seven minutes into the second period.

Down by the same score with less than 14 minutes left in the third period, this one was was surely over, right? Wrong, try again. Colborne got the rally started at 6:56. Russell cut the gap in half at 11:28 and 59 seconds later, Backlund made it 4-3. Russell then scored again -- his second of the game and third of the season at 17:42, stunning the home crowd and anyone else that was watching too.

If Hiller could have stopped Kyle Turris in the shootout, Calgary could have won it too but instead, the shootout continued and Erik Karlsson won it for Ottawa in round six. Nonetheless, it was a point for the Flames that was entirely unexpected and it would come in very handy at the end of the season.

11. March 30, 2015 - Flames win 5-3 in Dallas

With the season on the line, Calgary headed out on yet another another long road trip. They had finished above .500 on their first four five-games-or-longer road trips this season but they would have to make it a perfect five-for-five in that respect to stay in contention for a playoff spot. As I wrote here in advance of that trip, they needed to somehow split the first four games then win the finale in Edmonton. While still a difficult task, it was at least a realistic goal. However, that task grew more challenging when they dropped the opening game 4-2 in Minnesota.

Fortunate to catch the Predators without Pekka Rinne (resting) and Shea Weber (minor injury), Calgary got a big 5-2 win in Nashville on Sunday but with St. Louis looming, the money game and the game the Flames absolutely had to win was Monday night in Dallas against a hot Stars team, which had defeated Calgary five days earlier at the Saddledome.

The game didn't start out very well, falling behind 40 seconds in on Jason Spezza's goal then falling behind 2-1 on Tyler Seguin's goal with 34 seconds left in the first. However, Calgary stormed back with three unanswered goals in the second period including an absolute beauty by Raphael Diaz that broke the tie and enabled Calgary to pick up the two points they desperately needed.

12. April 9, 2015 - Flames win 3-1 over Los Angeles

It was the biggest game for the Flames in six years. With a win, Calgary would clinch a spot in the post-season and end a five-year playoff drought while also eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions. But what an enormous challenge for Calgary, knocking off the battle-tested Kings, who thrive when their backs are up against the wall.

However, Calgary started fast and never showed the nervousness that you would have expected in jumping out to a 2-0 first period lead and outshooting the Kings 15-8. Los Angeles had the territorial edge over the final 40 minutes but Calgary played a smart game and defended well, limiting any dangerous chances. The Kings made it interesting on Jordan Nolan's goal five minutes into the third period but despite a couple of close calls, Calgary managed the game well and clinched it with one of the better-looking empty goals you'll see and certainly one of the most dramatic, the second goal and third point of the night for Hudler.

It was a win that left the entire city buzzing as well as the players. Full post-game reaction captured in my game story here for The Canadian Press.

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