It may be a cliché almost as old and venerable as Lord Stanley himself, but the playoff gospel handed down from Toe Blake to Scotty Bowman and on to today’s current crop of NHL head coaches remains the same: the fourth win of a best-of-seven series is always the toughest to earn.
Given that the Calgary Flames have managed to win a quartet of games in a seven-game series on just four occasions since they won their lone championship 33 years ago – with three of those coming in their unexpected run to the final in 2004 – the adage certainly seems to hold true in Southern Alberta.
Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter, who led the franchise to that trio of wins, is as old school as they come, so it was no surprise to hear him repeat that well-worn mantra minutes after the Flames edged the Dallas Stars on Wednesday to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.
With the Flames’ focus now fully on Friday’s Game 6 in Dallas – and the prospect of a first seven-game series victory since 2015 – the two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach is eager to see what his players are made of.
“Bottom line is we have a lot of guys who haven’t won a fourth game, so that’s the next step in the process to see if they’re capable of doing that,” he said Thursday before boarding the charter plane.
Given the franchise’s oft-painful playoff implosions in years past, with 2019′s five-game loss to the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche frequently held up as Exhibit A, the Flames brain trust made it their mission to surround the team’s young core of skilled talent with veterans for whom playoff success has become part of their DNA.
So they went out and signed players such as 30-year-old Blake Coleman, who has twice as many seven-game series wins in the past two seasons (eight) than the Flames have in their past 33, along with Trevor Lewis, who won two Stanley Cups playing under Sutter in Los Angeles. The team also traded for Tyler Toffoli in the run-up to the February trade deadline, a winger who also won a Cup with the Kings, before helping the Montreal Canadiens to the final last year.
Having those guys in the locker room helps, Sutter said, particularly in tight games such as Wednesday’s Game 5, in which the Flames rode a furious third period to become the first team in the series to win a game after giving up the first goal.
“I think the recency effect has a lot to do with it,” Sutter said. “I think Blake Coleman, Trevor Lewis and Ty going last year to the finals too. I think that that has a bigger impact than anything.”
After winning back-to-back championships with Tampa Bay the past two years, Coleman knows as well as anyone what it takes to get a team across the finish line. While his role will never be confused with that of 100-point playmakers such as Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, Coleman brought his talents to bear on Wednesday, driving the net and creating the space for Andrew Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund to create the tying goal.
The Plano, Tex., native, who grew up attending Stars games as a fan with his grandmother, is more than happy to walk the walk. But he’s also prepared to talk the talk, delivering the kind of message that Sutter espouses on a daily basis at this time of year.
“You know, if there’s something I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that closing a team out is the hardest part of a series and winning that fourth game is the hardest game you got to win,” Coleman said. “So the job is certainly not done.”
The pivotal game will still have to be won at American Airlines Center, of course, but the Flames will enter the game with history on their side. When Calgary has won Game 5 of a best-of-seven series to break a 2-2 deadlock, the Flames have gone on to earn the series victory in seven of 10 previous occasions, ending the series in Game 6 on three of those occasions.
Coleman said the confidence that he and other veterans have gained from closing out series in previous postseasons should stand the Flames in good stead on Friday. Given the way the team turned Wednesday’s game around, starting with some home truths being delivered during the second intermission after a fairly flat opening 40 minutes, the hope and expectation will be to carry the energy of that third period into Game 6.
“Obviously, we have a handful of guys that have won Cups and gone on long playoff runs, things like that,” Coleman said. “So there’s guys that have handled their business in winning that fourth game. I think that third period is a great model for us to keep building on and if we play like that, in this next game, then we’re going to be in great shape.”