CALGARY – Nearly left for dead four days ago, the Calgary Flames are right back in contention in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Flames’ fading playoff hopes got a boost Wednesday night as Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff made 29 saves in a 2-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes.
Rene Bourque and Ales Kotalik scored for the Flames, who entered the night facing elimination from the Western Conference playoff race as early as Friday night.
Combined with Colorado’s 5-2 loss Wednesday at home to Anaheim, Calgary pulled to within two points of the eighth-place Avalanche, setting up a huge game between the two clubs on Friday night at the Pepsi Center.
“It’s going to be the biggest game of the year,” said Bourque. “They’ve been struggling so they’re definitely going to be ready for us, but we’ve played well there this year. This is the time of the year everyone wants to play hockey and this is when the best players have to be your best players.”
Things looked bleak for the Flames Saturday afternoon after a 5-0 drubbing in Boston left them six points back Avalanche.
However, the Flames shocked the league-leading Washington Capitals 5-3 on Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, the Avalanche lost Saturday night and Sunday night.
Suddenly, the Flames could pull even with Colorado with a win on Friday night.
“We’re definitely in a better position now than we were on the weekend,” said Bourque. “It’s funny how it works, two games ago, we’re six points out and four days later, we’re right there within one game of tying them. We got a little help tonight and we’re going to continue to need it.”
Colorado holds a game in hand and would have the benefit of the tiebreaker (most wins) between the two teams.
“Nothing is over until it’s over. Right now we’re in a pretty good position, we got a little help today, and it feels good to go into Colorado and hopefully we can come up with a big effort,” Kotalik said.
Calgary (39-29-9) has suddenly caught fire at home, having won five straight at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
Lee Stempniak scored for Phoenix (47-25-6), which has one win in its last five on the heels of a nine-game winning streak that had them briefly in first place in the Pacific Division.
With four games left, the Coyotes remain in fourth spot in the West, four points back of the division-leading Sharks and six points clear of fifth place Nashville.
“They’re a team that wants to play with emotion. They were a desperate team tonight and they played well,” said the Coyotes’ Matthew Lombardi, a former Flame. “We came pretty strong, but those guys played well, Kiprusoff made some big saves. We just missed a little bit of finish out there.”
The game was scoreless until 14:23 of the second period when Calgary connected on the power play as Ian White’s shot deflected in off the skate of Bourque.
Bourque’s 25th goal of the season was the first power-play goal surrendered by Phoenix in six games.
Calgary went ahead 2-0 on Kotalik’s 11th goal at 3:46 of the third period. Kotalik snapped a shot inside the goalpost on a nice set up pass from the sideboards by Mikael Backlund.
Stempniak got the Coyotes to within a goal with 6:52 left in the game. Wojtek Wolski dropped the puck to the trailing Stempniak and he snapped his 27th goal behind Kiprusoff to set up a frantic finish.
“We played really well for the most part,” Stempniak said. “If we score on a couple of those chances, it’s a different game.”
Since being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3, Stempniak has been the NHL’s hottest player racking up 13 goals in 14 games.
Several times early in the game he nearly put the Coyotes into the lead.
In the first period, he put a puck off the outside of the post and then seconds later was alone with the puck in front of Kiprusoff, but the Flames goaltender got him with a poke check.
With the game still scoreless in the second period, Stempniak cut into the slot and ripped a shot off the crossbar. In the final seconds of the second period, he was denied again on a dangerous shot from in close.
“The one I’d like back is probably that one with 10 seconds left in the second,” Stempniak said. “I walked in all alone. I would have liked to have done something different there.”
Playing on back-to-back nights, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett gave Ilya Bryzgalov the night off, turning to backup Jason LaBarbera.
LaBarbera entered the night having won his last four starts and in five appearances with a tidy goals-against average of 1.53. He finished with 29 saves.
Notes: Phoenix D Zbynek Michalek was given the night off to rest. His spot was taken by Mathieu Schneider, who had sat out the previous two games… Also playing for the first time in five games was Jim Vandermeer. The former Flames defenceman played as a forward in place of C Petteri Nokelainen. …The Coyotes fall to 7-4-1 on the back end of back-to-back games. …White and Mark Giordano have 11 goals each giving the Flames two of the top 10 scoring defencemen. …Stempniak’s goal matches his career-high (27). …Phoenix is 12-7-0 versus the Northwest Division.