EDMONTON — As the hockey world watched the Flames pre-game warmup to see if Matthew Tkachuk would return to the lineup, out skated the biggest story of the night.
And the series.
His name: Cam Talbot.
The man leading the Flames out of the tunnel then led them to a 2-0 win in which he did his best Carey Price impression by outright stealing the game.
Larceny in the highest order, the 33-year-old stopped 35 shots from a Dallas Stars team that swarmed Calgary’s end all night long.
With a steady series of significant saves, including a doozy on Tyler Seguin in tight with four minutes left, Talbot ensured the better team didn’t win on this night, giving the Flames a 2-1 series lead.
So much for the debate that swirled amongst Flames fans, wondering if it was time to give David Rittich his first NHL playoff start.
“There wasn’t even a question of changing goalies going into this game,” said Ward, whose club did indeed play without the services of Tkachuk.
“I had no qualms. He’s been so solid for us. He was outstanding. He was the reason why we won the hockey game. We had confidence he would come out today, and battle hard, and give us a chance to win. He was the difference in the hockey game.”
Of that there is no question.
Outplayed now in five of their last six periods against the Stars, the Flames spent the bulk of the evening on their heels, helping Talbot repel a barrage that had them out-chanced 27-6 according to Natural Stat Trick.
Less than 24 hours earlier Talbot was asked at the hotel after a 5-4 loss if he was game for a second consecutive night of late-evening work.
“They asked me how I was feeling and I told them, ‘I feel good,’” said Talbot, who did his best work in a second period in which the Flames built a 1-0 lead despite being outshot 16-4.
“They asked me if I wanted to play again and I said. ‘Yes, 100 per cent. I’ll rest (Saturday) after hopefully a big win (Friday) night.’ I’m just happy they had the confidence to go back with me and I was able to reward them with a game like that.”
A game the Stars had to feel good about in every way but the final score.
Which begged questions about how the Flames felt about their play.
“I don’t think we have to be worried — we haven’t played our best in the series,” said Tobias Rieder, who filled in for Tkachuk on the Flames’ second line.
“We have some time to talk about it and we’ll learn from our past mistakes,” added Mikael Backlund, whose shorthanded goal five minutes into the second period allowed the Flames to fall into an even bigger defensive shell, up 1-0.
“It’s our job to come out and play better Sunday. Against Winnipeg we had some really solid games — I don’t think we’re there yet here. It shows strength to find a way to win games and we did that here. It doesn’t matter how you play, as long as you win in the playoffs.”
Fair enough, but surely the coach is a tad worried about the shooting gallery the Stars have set up in Calgary’s zone the bulk of the last two games.
“Nope,” said Ward. “It wasn’t our best effort, but there’s no such thing as a bad win. A win is a win.
“We’ll take that. Obviously, there are some things we want to be better at next game, but we’ll take 17 more ugly wins if that’s what it takes. We’re never going to make an excuse for a win, but obviously we know we can be better. We really haven’t put our full game on the ice yet in the series. We’ve got to work towards that. We did enough to scratch and claw to get it done.”
For the second year in a row, the Flames’ playoff MVP is their goalie, which is something they should certainly embrace this time around.
Obviously more is needed from the big boys up front, as opposed to counting on the penalty kill to win games.
On this night T.J. Brodie’s insurance blast midway through the third capped the evening, giving him something to grin about through a smile missing two teeth lost in Thursday’s outing.
“Talbs was great — he made some huge saves, especially towards the end of the game,” said Brodie, whose team was outshot 35-23. “Whenever there was a breakdown he was there and was solid all night long.”
This one wasn’t as physical as the previous two games, nor was there as much pushing and shoving after every whistle.
Tkachuk’s absence had plenty to do with that. He left Thursday’s game early in the third period following a collision with Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak he didn’t return from.
“He does so much for our team, obviously it’s a huge hole for us,” said Ward. “It’s a day-by-day situation with him. We’re hoping he’ll be back for Game 4.”
This series is settling down into Dallas Stars hockey, which should be of concern for a team that is still only a handful of games into a defensive style they’ve suddenly embraced.
Or maybe the Flames have them right where they want them.
Game 4 goes Sunday at noon M.T. on Sportsnet.