DENVER – Mikael Backlund had as hard a time as anyone swallowing the dramatic turn of events that has his Calgary Flames on the brink.
Whistled for a late penalty that led to the game-tying goal, he was then stoned by Philipp Grubauer in overtime and on the ice when Mikko Rantanen ended it.
"It’s hard. It’s tough," sighed the Flames veteran, whose club is stunned to be behind 3-1 against Colorado following a 3-2 overtime loss.
"I took a bad penalty and then I had a chance to redeem myself, and then instead they score right in front of me again. It’s going to be a long night, a tough night."
Could be a tough off-season for the Western Conference champs unless they figure out a way to overcome one slaughter and two overtime gut punches from a surging Avalanche team.
Much like Tampa, the Flames have a five-alarm fire on their hands.
Despite another heroic goaltending outing by Mike Smith, the Flames return home to Calgary Friday facing the very real possibility another conference champ is about to bite the dust courtesy of a wild card club.
Such double drubbings would make NHL history.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, especially to a group of lads whose biggest weakness (goaltending) has suddenly been its biggest strength.
For the second time in this series the Flames allowed a game-tying goal in the final three minutes, setting up another overtime loss.
This time Colorado’s hero was Rantanen, who scored a power-play goal with 2:50 left, then added another 10:23 into overtime to cap a two-goal comeback that will require even more Flames fortitude.
After all, this one was even more gutting than the overtime loss in Game 2 at home that turned the series.
"It definitely hurts," said Smith, who faced over 50 shots for the second game in a row.
"It was a more competitive game, we played more up to our speed and had our chances but we have a two goal lead with ten minutes left and can’t find a way to push it along and win in regulation. That’s obviously tough."
Rantanen’s second goal of the game was a one-timer from long-range that beat Smith clean.
It came on the Avs’ 52nd shot of the night, mere seconds after Colorado killed off an Ian Cole penalty for delay of game.
Five minutes before that Backlund had the best chance to save their sinking ship, as he corralled a rebound at the side of the net and lifted it over Grubauer’s pad, only to see the goalie desperately lift his left leg to save the day.
"We have a power play and we had a chance in overtime there and the goalie makes a good save and obviously they bury on one of their chances," said Smith, whose Flames were on their heels the final 30 minutes of the evening.
"That’s the way it goes."
The fourth-straight all-world performance from Smith wasn’t enough, even from a Flames team that managed to bounce back from a horrific beating in Game 3.
Tightening up defensively, limiting time and space for Nathan MacKinnon and playing a more patient game, the Flames broke a scoreless tie on the power play early in the second period when Elias Lindholm’s shot bounced off a defender, then off Grubauer and into the net.
It was a fortuitous set of bounces to be sure, but one the Flames make no apologies for as it was an unfortunate bounce that led to the late, game-tying goal in Game 2 that turned this series on its head.
Derek Ryan made it 2-0 in the third when he buried a Juuso Valimaki rebound in tight to give the Flames breathing room they enjoyed for just over a minute before JT Compher responded.
Compher started the comeback with 12 minutes left by burying a rebound following one of a dozen dandy glove saves by Smith.
It set up a tense third period in which the Flames blocked endless shots in a brilliantly played game in which the teams traded scoring chances all night long.
A tripping call on Backlund with just over three minutes left set up the nifty Rantanen redirection of a MacKinnon pass.
The Pepsi Center crowd exploded to their feet, still waving white pom-poms while Noah Hanifin was whistled for delay of game for inadvertently firing the puck over the glass.
The Flames managed to kill it off, setting up overtime, and eventual heartache.
The Flames now have no choice but to insist they haven’t given up hope, which is hard to believe given how much better the Avs have been this series.
"We have been on a lot of winning streaks this year," said Backlund, offering up feint hope against a team they swept in three regular season games this year.
"We’ve beat this team several times before. We have nothing to lose now. I don’t think a lot of people are going to think we can do it, but we know we can. We’ve faced a lot of adversity this year. If there is any group I believe in and know they can do it, it’s this group right here."
He’s right. Few believe.
"Tonight we couldn’t stop the momentum after they got their first one and we’ve got to do a better job on that," said captain Mark Giordano.
"We’re not done yet. We have a big home game coming up and then get it back here."