EDMONTON – No coach or player in the history of hockey is ever going to be able tell you exactly how soul-destroying it is to lose a game like that.
A game you were 11.9 seconds away from taking a 3-1 series lead in, only to lose in overtime.
A game that twice hung in the balance of a late, war-room decision made 3,300 kilometres away.
A game that saw the Calgary Flames give up late goals in all three periods, only to battle back each time with a gritty response.
Bless their broken hearts for trying to sum it up, but there are no words after a missed opportunity like that.
Those actions are about to tell us a whole lot more about the character of a Calgary Flames team that entered this 24-team summer tourney with the least playoff experience.
“Absolutely,” agreed Flames coach Geoff Ward following his team’s 5-4 overtime loss Sunday that allowed the Dallas Stars to tie the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
“But I think we’ve found out some real good things about our character to this point. But now it comes down to a best-of-three. This is the beauty of the playoffs — two good teams going at it and we’re sawed off after four games. How can you not like that? These are the games everyone wants to play as a young kid, imagining playing in games that matter this time of year. This is awesome. We can hardly wait to get to Game 5.”
His shockingly upbeat approach was by design, sending messages to his charges that, well, we will let him tell you.
“We’ve got nothing to be ashamed about — I thought our team gave a real good accounting of ourselves tonight,” said Ward, whose club overcame two early deficits before grabbing an early third-period lead.
“I think it’s easy for us to put it behind us – we’ve been doing it for a while now. Our guys’ focus has been in the right place. I think we can be happy we played a good game.”
Not good enough, clearly, as an equally resilient Stars club finally managed to bury the winner late in the first overtime period when John Klingberg’s point blast was tipped past Cam Talbot by Alexander Radulov on the club’s 108th shot attempt of the afternoon.
It marked the fourth time of the game the Flames were essentially scored on while short-handed as Dillon Dube’s broken stick rendered him inconsequential as the Stars set up the lethal blow.
It came sixteen minutes after Joe Pavelski punctuated regulation time by completing his first playoff hat trick with a desperate, game-tying rebound through traffic with 11.9 seconds left – the 50th shot on Talbot to that point.
Until then, the Flames had weathered (another) third-period storm prompted by Tobias Rieder’s latest short-handed gem early in the third, which stood to be the game-winner until Joe Cool threw water on every barbeque party in Southern Alberta with goalie Anton Khudobin pulled.
Two minutes earlier those parties revelled in seeing a Jason Dickinson goal wiped out by the war room, thanks to Corey Perry’s incidental contact on Talbot. They hoped for similar help on Pavelski’s snipe, which was reviewed by the league for potential off-side on Tyler Seguin, to no avail.
Mark Giordano said the message and mood in the dressing room after that goal was simple and upbeat:
“The message was, ‘we have to move on,’ and ‘next goal wins,’” said Giordano, whose club played without Matthew Tkachuk for the second straight game.
“I thought the guys were great and there was excitement in our room still.”
Ward agreed, tipping his hat once again to the way his squad has handled adversity.
“Sometimes with a young team when that happens the emotion can tend to sag a bit, but we didn’t see any of that,” said Ward, whose club got yet another playoff jolt by Sam Bennett’s two-goal outing.
“I thought the guys handled the late goal well and I didn’t think it took anything away from how we were able to handle overtime.”
In fact, one of the best chances in overtime came early when Rieder’s attempt to convert a 2-on-1 with Mikael Backlund was thwarted by a broken stick.
Giordano said a day earlier the Flames had been the recipient of some timely momentum changers in these playoffs. Not so there.
While the Stars did indeed have the Flames on their heels aplenty, as the 62-40 shot totals indicate, this classic boiled down to a coin flip.
Same goes for the series.
“It’s unfortunate,” was Johnny Gaudreau’s attempt to explain the heartache.
“Anytime you lose it sucks,” added Sean Monahan, who quickly turned upbeat, as the rest of his teammates did afterwards.
“I thought we competed hard and it was one of the better games of the series for us. The series is tied 2-2 and we look forward to the next game.”
Indeed, as hard as it might be for deflated fans and players, there are plenty of reason to be proud and optimistic moving forward — something they couldn’t say in their playoff collapse last year.
But the reality, once again, was that without Talbot’s all-world ability to stop 57 shots, the ice wouldn’t have needed a third flood.
The 33-year-old netminder had little chance on the winner.
Ward dismissed the latest discrepancy in shot totals by pointing out the bulk of Stars salvos were from the outside, which doesn’t concern him.
Problem is, plenty of them create dangerous second and third chances, especially on the power play where the Stars got seven opportunities (and converted twice.)
Flames discipline will have to improve in Game 5 on Tuesday.
“It’s unfortunate they were able to put one in in the last (12) seconds, but that’s playoffs,” said Bennett The Playoff Beast, who had three points on the afternoon.
“We move on. Short memory. It’s 2-2. Two good teams moving on. It’s exciting hockey. We’re not going to dwell on it. Obviously we would have liked to win that and go up 3-1, but we’re tied 2-2 – we’re in a perfectly good position.”
We’ll see Tuesday how much they believe that.