Flames put newfound confidence on display in thriller vs. Lightning

J.T. Miller beat David Rittich in the shootout and the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Calgary Flames.

CALGARY — Five minutes of overtime wasn’t enough, neither were seven rounds of shooters.

Fact is, hockey could use seven games of this… in the Stanley Cup Final. No plebiscite in the world would turn that opportunity down.

Okay, we’ll catch our breath here first.

What transpired under the saddle-shaped roof Thursday night was a display of the game as brilliant as Christmas morning smiles. A perfect combination of deft speed, skill and smarts meeting up with sublime netminding in a game so evenly matched it took almost three hours to solve.

In the end, the best team in hockey outlasted the surging newbies atop the west — a 5-4 shootout victory by Tampa over the Flames sent a capacity crowd home wondering (once again) if it’s possible for a game to be any more exciting.

“It was just one of those games that felt like it could go a long time — it would have been nice to keep playing,” said Flames coach Bill Peters.

“Pretty exciting both ways. Great game. Penalty kill was good, offence was good, goaltending was good. Lots to like.”

Following a year in which the former coach himself continually asked out loud why his Flames couldn’t respond to adversity, the hallmark of this year’s bunch is rising to the occasion.

In a game dubbed as the ultimate measuring stick for a surging Flames team, let it be known these Flames seem to relish the challenge.

They’ve beaten Boston, whipped Winnipeg, won two of three against Nashville and gone toe-to-toe with Tampa. Not only can they can hang with the big dogs, they’ve become a big dog.

They’re one game away from going into the Christmas break on a 12-3-2 run that continues to prove doubters wrong.

Undaunted by a Dan Girardi goal with under five minutes left that put the hosts down 4-3, the Flames bounced back (again) with a dramatic breakaway conversion by Johnny Gaudreau with 2:28 remaining.

Outracing Girardi to a loose puck around centre ice, he held off two defenders to slide a backhand under Louis Domingue.

The joint was rocking, prompting Johnny Hockey to make like John Stockton.

“I just had a lot of speed there and saw the fans jump up so I jumped too,” chuckled Gaudreau of a Lambeau Leap-type launch into the glass. “Exciting goal there.

“I think we knew we could play with any team in the league by just the way we’ve been playing throughout the season here. Obviously a good test for us — this team is ahead of most teams by a pretty good margin — but we played well in both zones.”

On the power of a first-period goal and assist that had the hosts up 3-1 after one, Sam Bennett was promoted to the Gaudreau/Sean Monahan line in the third. He had a great view of the theatrics.

“It’s amazing how many big goals he comes up with — you need your best players to step up and time and time again he does — it’s always fun to watch him,” said Bennett.

“It was a fun game. It would be a lot more fun if we got the win. It’s an exciting game when two of the best teams go up against each other.”

And there it is again — that newfound confidence and belief from a Flames team that went from missing the playoff miserably last year to sitting one point short of Winnipeg’s perch atop the west.

David Rittich has plenty to do with that, playing stellar in his fourth-straight start. Not only did he turn aside 32 shots in regulation and overtime, but saved five of seven shootout attempts from an all-star list of Lightning.

Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Tyler Johnson all fell short of beating Rittich in a star-studded showdown that also included saves on Matthew Tkachuk, James Neal (start the debate now), Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Mark Jankowski.

Sean Monahan and Victor Hedman were the only two scorers until Miller’s snapper silenced the crowd.

It abruptly ended a thrilling finish that included five action-packed minutes of three-on-three pond hockey that included a Hedman shot off the post and seven great saves by Domingue.

The two high-scoring teams meet again in Tampa Feb. 12 for a rematch you have to start believing will once again be dubbed a clash of the titans.

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