The playoffs arrived a week early this National Hockey League season. Anyone who saw the Calgary Flames do battle with Northwest Division rival Vancouver on Tuesday knows the post-season, not slated to begin until next week, was on display. Big hits. Big saves. Big goals. Goalies getting bumped around. Unlikely heroes.
It's what the playoffs are about and it is what Tuesday's game was all about.
It was, as we all heard for days, and even weeks, the biggest game of the season for both teams. A win for the Flames and the Northwest Division title, and the coveted third seed in the Western Conference, is theirs. A Canuck win and the Left Coasters remain in the hunt for the Northwest Division title. With a 4-1 win over the Flames, the Canucks are now tied in points with the Flames but Calgary can claim first in the Northwest with two wins in a home-and-home against Edmonton on Friday and Saturday. The Oilers were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Tuesday and are now reduced to the spoiler role.
The Flames, playing their second game in as many nights, took the morning skate off at the insistence of head coach Mike Keenan and arrived a GM Place on fire for the first 20 minutes as they outshot the Canucks 21-9. Only a very sharp Roberto Luongo kept the visitor's at bay as he put on a show in the Canucks crease. A little more than 24 hours earlier, the Flames were a tentative team in the first period against a non-playoff team, the Los Angeles Kings.
Not so Tuesday. The top line was hopping. Olli Jokinen
had six shots on net with the second period barely started. Jarome Iginla
was a physical force. And the defence, missing top shut down man Robyn Regehr and steady Cory Sarich
-- both replaced by rookies -- played a tough game down low.
Jokinen, playing in his 14th career games against Vancouver, was looking for his first goal against Vancouver. He was a man possessed putting every puck he could on the net -- if that's the way he plans to play in the post-season, he will begin scoring again. Just before the mid-point of the third he rang a shot off the post and then just missed on the rebound.
Keenan, prior to the team leaving for Vancouver, said the game plan for Iginla, Jokinen, Mike Cammalleri
et al was to get pucks to the net. The philosophy is simple.
"If they are shooting the puck they are going to score goals because they are goal-scorers," said Keenan. "We've talked about it. Going to the net and getting pucks to the net."
The philosophy worked on the Flames first goal. Cammalleri shot first. Luongo makes the save. Jokinen is there for a rebound that trickles just wide. Iginla is there to scoop that loose puck into the net and solve Luongo. It could have worked on a number of plays -- Jamie Lundmark was robbed by a Luongo glove in the seconds and agonizingly watched the puck slide through the catching mitt and tick off the post.Miikka Kiprusoff
was not about to let Luongo steal the show, either. He was equal to the task, and, although the Canucks didn't manage as many shots as the Flames, a good number of the first period shots were quality scoring chances. The only blemish on the Flames through 20 minutes was a Canuck goal and it was part luck, part skill -- another sign the playoffs are nearing.
Mark Rypien caught a bounce to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead in the first period. His first effort was foiled by a back-checking Iginla but the puck bounced back to him and he beat Kiprusoff with a wrist shot on the second attempt. In the second period, just after Iginla had scored, Mattias Ohlund's shot is tipped off the stick of Dion Phaneuf, handcuffing the Flames goalie and giving the Canucks a 2-1 lead.
In the third, the Flames power play, admittedly a struggling bunch, had their third five-on-three in two games and were unable to find the equalizer. If there is something that needs to kick start in the two remaining games prior to the playoffs, it is the man-advantage units. Not that some chances weren't there -- again, Luongo was good, remember -- but at some point it might become more mental than physical. On the other hand, power plays often go in peaks and valleys. If this is the valley, the peak may come in the playoffs. Jokinen's post came on the power play and Iginla had a partial breakaway on the same man advantage.
Calgary ran into their own penalty trouble and that's when Ohlund, who had not scored in 25 games, decided to be the unlikely hero for Vancouver and notched his second of the game with a little more than five minutes left in the game. Calgary was killing off their third straight penalty, including a five-on-three disadvantage.
Yes, in the end the Flames lost this game, 4-1. Really, though the score was not reflective of the play, which was largely carried by the Flames.
The Flames had 46 shots on net. The Canucks 25. Give the win to Luongo.
"He's a top goalie in the league but if we play like that, we will win," said Jokinen, who finished with seven shots on net.
If it was, indeed a early glimpse of how they plan to play in the playoffs, it's going to be a lot of fun. In a seven game series, they would likely win playing as they did on Tuesday. For one, a goalie can't remain that hot for an entire series. And two, they were strong defensively. In fact, the Canucks, a team known to cycle Calgary into fits, were rarely in the Flames zone long enough to get any of that Sedin boardwork and cycle going, although the twins hooked up for the fourth Canuck goal. The Flames were very strong on the forecheck, too.
For those who have been wondering about the Flames floundering, losing their identity and sliding as they head towards the playoffs, there were some answers on Tuesday. This team still has plenty of game left to bring.
"This team has plenty of offence," said forward David Moss
. "It was a matter of getting better defensively. You are going to win more than you are going to lose if you are playing well defensively and your penalty kill is doing well."
Enough said. Bring on the playoffs.