Flames ‘relieved’ to beat Panthers as they still search for their game

Matthew Tkachuk scored twice and the Calgary Flames beat Florida Panthers in the shootout for the 6-5 win.

Exhaling deeply, the look of relief on Noah Hanifin’s face mirrored the sentiments of the city.

“That,” started the Calgary Flames defenceman, “would have hurt a lot. Especially with the outdoor game coming up, and the big road trip, we’re pretty relieved we got that one.”

At a time when the confidence of his Calgary club seems to fluctuate from period to period, authoring a come-from-behind shootout win over a relentless Florida Panthers club Thursday could end up being one of the biggest moments of the season.

It certainly felt that way.

After all, at one point, the hosts were less than three minutes away from officially squandering a two-goal cushion they’d built early in the third period.

If not for a late Sam Bennett goal to stymie a three-goal binge by Alexsander Barkov’s Panthers, these Flames would have headed out on a five-game roadie with their tails between their legs.

The Heritage Classic outdoor celebration, slated to include their families Friday and Saturday, would have been significantly muted.

These are not last year’s, West-winning Calgary Flames.

Or are they?

Is this all part of the learning curve on handling increased expectations?

Or is this team really of the belief its good enough to win on its abundant skill alone?

The fact is they’re not.

And Thursday night that was almost perfectly illustrated… until they pulled a rabbit out of their hats with a wildly entertaining 6-5 win.

Tied 2-2 entering the third, the Flames appeared to turn a measured, vanilla outing into a route when Matthew Tkachuk scored his second goal of the night just 32 seconds in.

What followed was the Flames’ most dominant five-minute stretch of the season as Sean Monahan was stopped on a breakaway, Mark Giordano and Rasmus Andersson both hit the post on a powerplay, and Milan Lucic also had a great chance turned away. At the five-minute mark, Giordano put the Flames up 4-2 and appeared in control.

They weren’t.

Three goals by the Panthers in the following nine minutes turned the Dome into a morgue, brought to life only by Bennett’s game-tying tally off Aaron Ekblad to set up an intense extra frame and skills competition.

The late heroics could all could have been undone had they not clinched that second point thanks to shootout goals by Monahan and Tkachuk.

“It was a crazy third period obviously, but that’s a big two points for us confidence-wise,” said Tkachuk.

“When they tied it up they had a lot of momentum there, and pulling a win out there is going to be big for our team.”

How it all seemed to fall apart in the third was similar to the way this team has imploded routinely in their 6-5-1 season. Needless giveaways in the neutral zone and failing to play smarter, safer hockey continues to be a problem.

“I just think we want to get to our game,” said Giordano.

“There are spurts of it, but there are times it’s too loose out there, and it feels too much like a turnover-fest. I thought at 4-2 in the third we were in a good spot. I didn’t necessarily like to give them three, but I thought we were resilient to get one back.”

Some would say lucky.

But given the unlucky bounces that led to their undoing against the Washington Capitals two night earlier, we’ll just call it even in the eyes of the hockey gods.

“Definitely lots going on,” smiled coach Bill Peters, who went on an unsolicited rant earlier in the week about playing smarter defensive hockey and giving up freebies.

“I thought we were in a good spot there when Gio scored. They pushed, we didn’t handle it very well, recovered, broke down a little bit … huge goal by (Bennett), he got us into overtime and then the shootout. It’s a resilient win. We’ll take the two points.”

Bennett was playing in his first game since Saturday when he left with a lower-body injury, returning to be the hero in a night that ended with David Rittich saving both Panthers shootout attempts.

The outdoor game goes Saturday night in Regina where temperatures are expecting to be around freezing come puck drop.

Things could certainly have been expected to get chillier had the Flames not pulled this one out of the fire.

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