As soon as the Vancouver Canucks jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Calgary Flames on Saturday, I knew they were in trouble.
Call it intuition or historical cynicism, but it immediately brought to mind 2004 and Calgary’s opening round ousting of the Northwest division champion Canucks. In an eerily similar Game-6 matchup and Vancouver facing elimination, the Canucks jumped out to a 4-0 lead, only to watch the sixth-seeded Flames score four times to tie it and force overtime.
Vancouver finally won the game 5-4 in triple OT, but the Flames would take Game 7 and begin their run to the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay.
Like 2004, the 2015 Flames were well-rested, having not had a playoff berth since 2009 (it had been seven years in ‘04). Expectations were at an all-time low, and Calgary fans were just ecstatic to be part of the post-season dance.
They faced a confident Vancouver team that had more depth and experience than the upstart Flames team whose surprising playoff appearance was to come to an end once they played in the real season.
But when the Flames battled back to win 7-4 and bounce the Canucks from the playoffs, the audacity of youth and the will to win seemed to be the deciding factors; a Flames team whose average age is just over 25 years outlasted and outplayed an aging Canucks squad that shakes out at a crippling 27.6 years.
But two years age difference is negligible, and desire can’t be measured by statistics. After all, the Canucks and Flames were almost dead even when it came to regulation and OT wins, 42 versus 41 (not including shootout), and goals-for, 242 versus 241. The Flames had a better goals against, 216 to 222, and plus-minus, 5, than the Canucks, but over 82 games the number is insignificant.
Rather, a variety of factors come into play for any team to have success, and in Calgary’s case, there were many, while in the Canucks’ end there were none.
Not one Canuck contributed anything close to what could be considered a breakout playoff performance. Calgary meanwhile had a number of players step up their game.
Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller were simply better than Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack. The Canucks defence looked tired and slow at times, and contributed little offensively, scoring just one goal in six games. Meanwhile, three Calgary defencemen – Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie, and Kris Russell – tallied as many points in the playoff round, 12, as the Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata put together.
The Flames’ line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler elevated their games when it counted, combining for 10 points in the Game 6 victory. Series-winning goal scorer Matt Stajan pitched in with four points, and, rookie Michael Ferland’s fierce forecheck hurried the Vancouver defence and forced a number of turnovers, nabbing him two goals and an assist in the series-clinching match. Even more significant, in six games the 23-year-old Ferland dished out 40 hits, second most in the playoffs.
Furthermore, the Flames made a habit of comebacks during the season with 10 third-period wins, and scored 40 per cent of their goals in the final frame. The Flames also claimed Game 1, on a late goal by Russell after being down 1-0 in the third.
Calgary simply doesn’t quit, and even when the Flames trailed by three goals in the first period of Game 6, the crowd was deafening, the Saddledome poised to erupt. The fans gave the Flames the intangible edge and energy needed to get past a Vancouver team whose supporters expected too much from a so-so team.
Remember 2004? Although Calgary lost to Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, 30,000 fans piled onto the Red Mile to welcome the team home and congratulate their effort. As for Vancouver’s loss to Boston in Game 7 of the 2011 Cup final, well we all know what happened there – perhaps, wanting it for your fans, that also makes a difference.
• The three previous times the Canucks and Flames met in the playoffs, the series was a first round match-up, went the maximum seven games with game seven being decided in overtime each time, and, the winning team would eventually go all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
• My bold prediction at the beginning of the season picked the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks to meet in the final with Chicago capturing Lord Stanley. The Habs may not be there, but I’ll stick with Chicago in 6.