CALGARY – Two nights after stealing the spotlight, Mike Smith came within a hair of outright stealing a game.
Alas, justice was ultimately served in the form of a 3-2 overtime win for the Colorado Avalanche ending with a Nathan MacKinnon rocket that beat Smith clean glove side.
The Saddledome-silencing snipe came just over eight minutes into overtime, capping a dramatic turn of events that finished with one of the game’s biggest stars showing everyone why.
“As good as Calgary was in Game 1, and even tonight, I thought we were one step ahead,” said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose club has indeed been the better of the two in a first round series now tied 1-1.
“We were winning battles and to be honest with you we deserved this one. Now, in playoffs it doesn’t always work that way, or in hockey in general. The team that deserves to win doesn’t always win. But we believed, and now we’re going to carry this momentum into Game 3.”
After being stonewalled by Smith Thursday in a 4-0 loss peppered with endless chants of “Smitty, Smitty,” the Avalanche responded with a dominating performance which had the Flames on their heels early and often.
Yet, Calgary’s 37-year-old goaltender held the fort until midway through the game when Matt Nieto capitalized on a T.J. Brodie gaffe at Colorado’s blue line, raced in alone and buried the opener past Smith.
The short-handed goal marked the first time in 45 shots the Avs were able to solve the man who was previously considered to be the biggest question mark heading into the series.
Now the bigger question is how Calgary will respond to losing home ice advantage to a surging Avs bunch that entered the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest.
“I mean, we’re fine,” said Flames forward Sam Bennett, who had two assists, four hits and a cut across his cheek to show for another night of full engagement.
“We’re not hitting the panic button or anything. We’re a good team – we all believe in each other. It’s just a matter of getting that start and being more prepared.”
After a Rasmus Andersson power-play goal tied the game 1-1 five minutes later, the Flames responded properly with a third period that had them poised to complete the steal when Sean Monahan swatted in the go-ahead goal with seven minutes remaining in the third.
J.T. Compher tied it with the goalie pulled and 2:39 left on the clock, setting up an overtime frame opened rather early with a power-play chance the Flames squandered.
Four minutes later, Philipp Grubauer came up with a big save on Michael Frolik, which led to a Mikko Rantanen pass over the blue line giving MacKinnon the golden chance he finished brilliantly.
Smith’s trapper, which has robbed the Avalanche of so many great chances early in this series, was beaten in dramatic fashion on MacKinnon’s seventh shot of the night.
“He’s a good goaltender, no doubt – he’s making the saves he should make and then he’s making some on top of that as well,” said Landeskog, whose club fired 39 shots on goal.
“For us, we’re not going to just roll over because we’re running into a hot goalie. We have a lot of offensive weapons in this room and we believed it was just a matter of time before we broke through. Nate – just a great shot.”
Though overshadowed by Smith’s heroics most of the night, Grubauer stopped 35 shots to continue the play that helped lift the Avs into the second wild-card spot with a furious finish to the regular season.
And while the Flames swept the three-game season series and managed to pull off a win to open the playoff matchup, they’re suddenly facing the type of adversity their consistency and depth took care of all season long.
“I think it’s a learning experience for sure,” added Bennett.
“No one is happy with the way we played in the first couple periods. Smitty bailed us out too many ties to count. He’s been playing great and we have to do a better job in front of him.
“We’re going to learn our lesson and play Game 3 with a lot more urgency.”
Coach Bill Peters agreed the team failed to start on time – a development masked once again by Smith.
“Both games he kept us in it – to have the confidence of a goalie like that we definitely can’t let that go to waste,” said Bennett.
“The first half of the game they seemed hungrier than us, like they wanted it more. Our team did a good job battling back, but sometimes when you let a team walk all over you in the first it makes it tough to come back. We didn’t have a big enough pushback.
“They were more physical. They were faster. We have a fast and physical team and we didn’t show it in the first.”
They’ll get a chance to show it Monday in Denver.