The Flames became the first team bounced from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs when, on home ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome, they lost Game 4 by a 3-1 count to the Ducks. Patrick Eaves, Nate Thompson and Ryan Getzlaf scored for Anaheim, while Sean Monahan registered the lone Calgary tally. For the Flames, it was the final blow in a stinging sweep at the hands of a club they just can’t seem to figure out.
One thing everybody watching the series knew was that Calgary desperately needed a strong performance from goalie Brian Elliott, who opened the door to a big Anaheim comeback in Game 3 with a very weak goal on the glove side. Instead of a bounce-back, they got another back-breaker when, 5:38 into the contest, Eaves swept a harmless-looking shot from the half-wall that somehow squeezed under Elliott and into the net.
“I still can’t explain how it goes under my pad there,” Elliott said. “I feel bad, I didn’t give our guys a chance right off the bat.”
He also didn’t get an opportunity to atone for the error, as coach Glen Gulutzan — who did not like his team’s start in general — opted to pull Elliott in favour of Chad Johnson right away.
“It’s definitely a short leash,” said Elliott, who never removed his mask while sitting on the bench during the first period. “I’m not saying I deserved a longer one after that. It’s tough when you can’t go out and redeem yourself.”
Eaves’ goal represented the third time in the series Anaheim grabbed the lead in the opening frame. And Johnson had barely settled into the crease when the Ducks came back for more. Corey Perry fired a puck on goal that Johnson stopped, but when Sam Bennett couldn’t clear the rebound, Thompson whacked it home for his fourth point in the past two games.
The flat start by the Flames was something Gulutzan sensed coming.
“To be quite frank, I worried about that from the morning skate,” he said.
To its credit, instead of crumbling, Calgary pushed back. The Flames took over the game in the middle period, cutting the lead to one when Monahan — for the fourth time in as many outings — netted a power-play marker.
Calgary chased the equalizer in the third, but John Gibson — one game after being pulled — was equal to the task, turning aside 12 shots in the final stanza and 36 overall. With Johnson on the bench, Getzlaf sealed the deal after Anaheim, true to its savvy nature, won some key defensive-zone faceoffs and clogged up shooting lanes as the Flames swarmed.
“That’s a good hockey team over there,” said Calgary captain Mark Giordano. “They find ways to win, they’re hard to play against, they’re big and skilled. Sometimes you gotta tip your hat.”
Still, there are moments that will surely stick with Calgary well into the summer. The Flames entered the series with a nearly unfathomable 25-game regular-season losing streak at the Honda Center in Anaheim, yet could very easily have won either of the series’ first two contests. A brutal line change allowed the Ducks to tie Game 1 after Calgary had worked to gain a second-period lead, while Game 2 was lost late in the proceedings on a horrible deflection off Lance Bouma’s skate and into the net.
In Game 3, Calgary coughed up a three-goal lead and, 90 seconds into overtime, a centring attempt by Perry bounced off Elliott, then defenceman Michael Stone and over the line. In the past 48 hours, numerous Flames shook their head while saying some variation of, “We don’t feel we deserve to be in this hole, but here we are.”
Even the Ducks acknowledged they were on the right side of some tasty rolls.
“You can’t discredit the opposition,” Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. “They were true to their word in saying they deserved, probably, a better fate in some of those situations. But this is sports and when you’re on the winning side, hopefully you’ve taken advantage of some of the things you were presented with and I think that’s the way it worked out for us.”
Certainly the series was about more than the capricious fancies of the hockey gods. Anaheim, a team that won the Pacific Division with 105 points, outscored Calgary 9-2 at five-on-five, limiting the Flames to that total despite playing the entire series without top-flight defeceman Cam Fowler and three of four games without another injured blue-liner, Sami Vatanen.
Then there was the goaltending. Elliott finished the series with an abysmal .880 save percentage, while Gibson posted a .926 mark and Jonathan Bernier was perfect in relief in Game 3, allowing his team to hang around long enough to snatch victory. While the discrepancy was stark, the Flames preferred to focus on the work Elliott did all year in helping the team snag the second-last playoff spot in the West.
“The reason why we’re here is Moose, to be honest,” said Giordano. “Great season by him. It was tough to see that one go in, for sure. We battled hard to get that one for him and we just came up a little bit short again.”
Whether or not Elliott, an unrestricted free agent, will be back next year is just one point of uncertainty for the Flames heading into the off-season. But there’s little question the organization is trending the right way. A couple years ago, when Calgary bowed out to the Ducks in five games, their presence in the playoffs felt like a bit of an aberration. This time, it seems like the start of a quality run.
“We had some young guys step up, even from two years ago, against a really good team,” said Gulutzan.
And tough as it is to swallow right now, the hard-earned wisdom will serve them well down the road.
“It’s a learning experience for all of us on how fine the line is between winning and losing in playoffs,” Giordano said.