There was a whiff of nostalgia in the air Friday night, and not just because the Winnipeg Jets were making their first trip to the Scotiabank Saddledome in almost 16 years. About six minutes in, the Jumbotron greeted the new/old Jets to Calgary with a spirited rendition of John Sebastian’s Welcome Back – full of old-timey highlights, breakaway goals, crushing hits, violent punch-ups and the sort of run-and-gun hockey so common to the old Smythe Division.
Perhaps motivated by the video tribute, the Flames and Jets played an old-school, exchanging-chances sort of game - for the first 30 minutes anyway - entertaining fans, but presumably causing an unsafe rise in the blood pressures of the respective coaches.
In the end, the Flames settled it down just enough to earn a 5-3 victory, extending Calgary’s modest home-winning streak to two games and ensuring that the Jets’ road futility (11-19-4) would continue.
The win lifted the Flames to 74 points in the Western Conference standings, moving them into a three-way tie for ninth place with the Colorado Avalanche (idle Friday) and the Los Angeles Kings (losers in regulation to the Detroit Red Wings). The San Jose Sharks currently hold down the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 75 points.
It is a similar logjam over in the East, where the Jets’ loss kept them from breaking an eighth-place tie with the Washington Capitals. Both teams have 72 points, but Washington now holds two games in hand. The Southeast Division leader Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a shootout Friday, but earned a single point in the process and moved up to 75 points.
With the races so close, it was a two big points for Calgary to land; and a big two points for Winnipeg to let slip through its fingers.
“How disappointed am I? How would you like me to answer that?” said Jets’ coach Claude Noel. “Medium? Large? Is there a level there? Is it 10 out of 10? Six out of 10? I mean, how disappointed do you need to be?”
Sounds like about a 13, and a lot of Noel’s disappointment came from the fact that three of the five Calgary goals came with the man advantage, the first time they’d managed that many power-play goals in a game all season.
“They were a little fortunate,” said Noel, “because two went off our player right onto their tape. They converted, they made the play, but you start off and you’re down 2-0. You end up being down 3-0. What can you do?
“I thought as the game went on, we ran out of energy in the latter half of the third period, so it was a big difference.”
The Flames received impressive performances from their biggest stars – goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, team captain Jarome Iginla and left winger Alex Tanguay. The Jets held a wide margin in shots on goal and had multiple gold-plated scoring chances, but Kiprusoff played exceptionally well, despite the barrage directed his way.
Tanguay, meanwhile, paced the Flames with four points, and his second-period goal was pivotal in reversing the momentum of a see-saw match. Calgary had opened up an early 3-0 lead; the Jets had battled back by scoring two in a row and were pressing hard for the tie.
But Tanguay, following up behind Iginla on a rush, corralled a loose puck in front of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and showed great patience to go way wide, until the net opened up. Tanguay’s goal made it 4-2 Calgary and Winnipeg could never get it back to even the rest of the night.
“They’re a skating team, we knew that coming in,” said Tanguay. “They played last night, and we came up with a great start. But then we sat back and against a team that’s skating like that, you can’t afford to do that. You can’t give them gaps in the neutral zone. You can’t give them free-skating room and they certainly capitalized.
“But it was nice. The atmosphere in the building was great. The Jets’ fans were here and they’re certainly loud and it helps our crowd as well. They were trying to match up and overcheer the Jets’ fans. It was a lot of fun.”
It was, as Tanguay noted, a raucous atmosphere at the Scotiabank Saddledome, thanks mainly to the infusion of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Jets’ fans, who interrupted the national anthem with their traditional “True North” chant, an early indication that they would be heard from.
But the crowd noise energized both teams in what was the first-ever battle of the NHL’s two former Atlanta franchises (Flames and Thrashers). The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 and then last year, the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg.
Iginla, meantime, collected three points himself – a goal and two assists – and continued to roll up the NHL milestones. His goal, the 512th of his NHL career, tied him with former Buffalo Sabres’ star Gil Perreault for 37th on the all-time list. Matt Stajan, with his 100th career goal, defenceman Mark Giordano and left winger Curtis Glencross, also scored for Calgary.
For the Jets, Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler – with a brilliant, end-to-end, eighties-style rush – replied against Kiprusoff. Kane also had a third-period goal disallowed after he knocked the puck in with a high stick.
It was a night that also saw the NHL debut of junior scoring sensation Sven Baertschi, a Swiss-born player currently with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. Not since Iginla arrived on the scene fresh out of junior in the mid-1990s have the Flames held such high hopes for a scoring star. Baertschi, from Switzerland, is ripping up the WHL with 97 points in 47 games and was call up on an emergency recall because of injuries to a sextet of Calgary forwards.
In his first game, Baertschi played mostly third-line minutes (16 shifts in 9:08 of ice time).
The Jets opted to go with seven defencemen and 11 forwards, because of the uncertainty over Dustin Byfuglien’s availability. Byfuglien didn’t take the warm-up – according to Noel, he was being treated for a lower-body injury – and then the Jets were quickly down to 10 forwards after Chris Thorburn suffered an unspecified injury.
Byfuglien ended up playing 27:31 most ice time on either team, and was his usual self – a factor at both ends of the ice.
“Because of the uncertainty, we decided to dress seven D,” said Noel, “but you got to give credit to Buff. He played 27 minutes and gave us what he had in a situation that wasn’t completely right. But you do what you have to do in that particular instance.”