CALGARY – Peering outside at the blizzard conditions Saturday morning, the Calgary Flames must have thought it was December again.
“Feels like Christmas, doesn’t it?” quipped Flames left-winger Alex Tanguay after practice Saturday as he prepared to head out into the cold wind chills and 10-15 centimetres of snow that had recently fallen.
Calgary will hope its game will be back in December-form on Sunday night when they attempt to stave off elimination in Game 6 of its opening-round series with the San Jose Sharks.
One of the Flames best stretches of hockey this year was a six-week stretch from early December to mid-January when they lost just once in 17 regulation games (12-1-4). They were playing with the consistency that has eluded them thus far in the NHL playoffs.
Calgary has looked great at times, turning a fast start into victory in Game 1, storming back from three goals down to win Game 3. In Game 4, however, they squandered a 2-1 lead in the final five minutes.
One loss away from a third straight first-round exit, the Flames know what’s at stake.
“We have to play well, that’s the bottom line,” said Tanguay. “Some guys will play five minutes and some guys will play 25 minutes, but you have to make sure they’re your best.”
The Flames will be looking for another big game from Game 3 star Owen Nolan. In his first year in Calgary, the 36-year-old veteran has been at his best at the Pengrowth Saddledome”.
During the regular season, Nolan scored 11 goals at home and was a plus-11 compared to the five goals and minus-5 he was on the road. That trend has continued into the post-season with Nolan’s one goal and two assists having all come at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
“We realize we’re down in the series but we’re still a confident group,” Nolan said. “We feel we can win this series. We just have to come out, be ready to work, play physical and the game will take care of itself.”
Five times this season Calgary has suffered losing streaks of three or more games, but each of the skids came in the first half of the season. Since mid-January, all five times the Flames have lost two straight, they rebounded with a victory. They’ll have to do it again Sunday to extend the series to a seventh and deciding game back in San Jose on Tuesday night.
“It’s resolve and resilience,” says Flames coach Mike Keenan. “If you go through the experiences of playing in playoff hockey and if you’ve had the experience of long cup runs, you always are faced with hurdles that you have to either overcome or you’re going to go home.” Winning two games in a row from San Jose will be no easy feat, considering – with the exception of the final weekend of the regular season when the Sharks lost back-to-back meaningless games – a five-game winless streak in mid-February was the last time the Sharks lost consecutive games.
“Throughout the course of the year, we’ve played our best games when we had to play them, when we needed to be at our best, and tomorrow that’s definitely going to be the case,” Tanguay said.
One thing not on Calgary’s side is its checkered post-season history. Since 1993, the Flames have faced elimination eight times and have won just once. Five of those games took place at home with Calgary losing all five (usually in dramatic fashion). Four of the losses have come in overtime – one in triple overtime and two in double overtime.
Long-time Pengrowth Saddledome patrons will remember the various villains whose overtime goals have brought Calgary’s seasons to a sudden conclusion: Vancouver’s Pavel Bure in 1994, San Jose’s Ulf Dahlen in 1995, Chicago’s Joe Murphy in 1996, and Detroit’s Johan Franzen last season.
Murphy’s goal at 10:02 of the third overtime, which completed a four-game sweep for the Blackhawks, was the second career NHL game for 18-year-old Jarome Iginla, who joined the club after his junior hockey season concluded.
Since then, Iginla has piled up 860 regular season games and 44 more playoff games, the latter a total the Flames captain hopes to keep adding to.
“He’s played exceptionally hard and exceptionally well,” said Keenan about Iginla’s play thus far. “He’s leading by example, he’s an inspiration to the group and he’s living up to what’s expected of him and more importantly what he feels about his game and how he feels about himself.”