The Calgary Flames are unexpectedly on the brink of bowing out of the NHL playoffs. The harsh reality crashed down on them in Denver on Wednesday night. They fumbled away a lead for the second time in three games and then lost in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche.
They head into Friday night’s game at Scotiabank Saddledome trailing 3-1 in their first-round series. More was expected from this team, which finished with the second-best record in franchise history and is the No. 1 seed in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Only a week ago, a run to the Stanley Cup final did not seem improbable. Now, to advance in the postseason, Calgary has to win three in a row after losing three in a row to the same opponent.
The Avalanche have proved to be a relentless and formidable adversary. Colorado won only three of 15 games in overtime in the regular season, but has now done it twice.
It came back from two goals down in the third period on Wednesday before inflicting a crushing defeat on the Flames.
Most likely, it was a back-breaker.
“We had a two-goal lead in the third and we couldn’t lock it down,” said Mark Giordano, Calgary’s captain. He was crestfallen as he stood in the quiet of the visitors’ dressing room at Pepsi Center. “We were good up until they got their goal, and then that gave them real momentum.
“We have to get back home, regroup, and remind ourselves that only one of three games we lost got out of hand.”
It is the pain that all but one team experiences during every Stanley Cup tournament. There are so many close calls and what-ifs. Outstanding teams crack under pressure. Spectacular players suddenly become ordinary.
At the all-star break, Johnny Gaudreau was among the candidates for most valuable player. He scuffled in the second half and now, with the season at stake, has all but disappeared. He has one assist in four games and his fancy skating has led to more turnovers than it has generated shots.
For five or six days now, he has looked as though he desperately needs a hug.
One could not fault the Flames for being confused.
They won Game 1 easily and did everything they set out to accomplish in Game 4 but win.
They played patiently, contained Nathan MacKinnon, took fewer risks, showed more discipline … and flew back home to Alberta on Thursday in a heap of trouble.
If there ever was a game plan designed to win, it was the one that their coach drew up. Fans can curse the Colorado Avalanche but certainly not Bill Peters.
These guys don’t give up. When MacKinnon found himself bottled up, Mikko Rantanen rode to the rescue. The big Finnish forward scored the tying goal and the winner.
He has three goals and three assists in four games, and between him and MacKinnon they have scored six. Calgary’s entire first line has combined for two goals.
It is the worst time imaginable to go dry.
“It is an amazing feeling,” MacKinnon said in the aftermath of Wednesday’s comeback from dead. "I mean, to be up 3-1 or tied at 2-2 in a series makes a huge difference.
“They took it to us early, but in the last 30 minutes we took control. It is very encouraging that we can flip the switch. You don’t have to play a perfect game to win, and we did tonight.”
That is the elation prompted by the drama of the playoffs.
“This one stings,” said Mike Smith, the Flames goalie.
Smith is 37 and has waited for seven years to get into the postseason. He spent nearly all of that time wandering through the Arizona desert with the Coyotes. It is a lovely place to play golf in winter but a dead-end for anyone who aspires to win the Stanley Cup. Buzzards begin circling early in the season and feast on the carcasses of dispirited hockey players come April.
Smith has done everything within his grasp to carry his teammates on his back in the playoffs. He has 138 saves over the past three games, all losses. If he hasn’t exactly stood on his head, he has flipped and flopped and dived and leaped to snag shots headed for the net.
He even has one assist, the same as Gaudreau. It says something good about him and something bad about his team’s fortunes.
“I am just one little cog and think it is nice to have personal success, but none of that matters if you are not winning,” Smith said in the dressing room afterward as sweat ran down one side of his face. He was exhausted, but stood there and addressed a group of journalists patiently and politely only minutes after a devastating defeat.
It is not over, of course, but the mountain the Flames need to climb looks like one of those snow-covered peaks in the Rockies.