EDMONTON – If there was ever any question the Flames would be ready for the last-gasp battle sure to be thrown their way, it was answered two seconds in.
Milan Lucic flexed his extensive playoff muscles by dropping the mitts off the opening draw with Nathan Beaulieu, scoring a decisive victory over the Jets defenceman.
After speaking the day earlier about proving to themselves and others they wouldn’t back down from the obvious push from a desperate and depleted Winnipeg club, they backed it up in every way.
Just 20 minutes later, it was essentially game over, thanks largely to the efforts of Lucic and his third line.
A Flames team that promised it had learned valuable lessons from last year’s playoff meltdown demonstrated exactly that with an early lead, followed by a clinical shutdown they weren’t capable of during the Colorado Collapse of 2019.
Continuing the momentum built from a second-period scoring binge in Game 3, the Flames scored two in the first and then rolled over an injury-ravaged Jets team, blanketing them defensively with a far more mature and measured approach to finishing games.
Their undoing a year earlier was their strength a year later.
The final two periods included textbook attention to defensive details, and new-found discipline, as all four lines smothered the Jets, forcing shots from the perimeter.
There would be no Maple Leafs meltdown here at Rogers Place, where the Flames’ 4-0 win capped the best-of-five series in four games.
And while linemates Dillon Dube (first NHL playoff goal) and Sam Bennett (goal with .3 seconds left in the first) led the scoring parade before two late empty-netters, it was Lucic who helped the set the tone.
“I was lining up for the draw and he asked me (to fight) and I said, ‘Effin’ rights,’ and that’s what happened,” chuckled Lucic, who also had two great scoring chances and an assist as part of an evening that saw him let up on Beaulieu after knocking him to his knees.
“He’s trying to show they’re ready to play and they’re not going down without a fight, but for me you just want to show you’re ready to play and not going to back down to their push.”
The NHL record book may suggest the Flames accomplished very little by merely advancing to the first round of the playoffs against a yet-to-be determined opponent starting as early as Tuesday.
But don’t tell them that, as the hurdles facing a club that has only advanced in the playoffs in two of the past 16 years have haunted them for years.
Showing a killer instinct to end a series for the first time in five years, the west’s eighth-ranked squad is the NHL’s first Canadian team to gain a playoff berth this year.
The defensive focus coach Geoff Ward has stressed going into the playoffs was so evident that even Johnny Gaudreau made a key stop, hustling back to strip Jack Roslovic who was on a breakaway.
It all served to silence some critics who kept pointing to last year’s first round loss to the Avalanche as proof this team couldn’t rise to the occasion.
“Colorado is a great team and they have a lot of star power and speed, but we felt last year the big bodies sort of pushed us out of that series,” said captain Mark Giordano, who called it a big relief to advance in the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career. (Yes, you read that right).
“If you look at our team now that’s not going to happen with the way we’re built. We proved that this round and we have to continue to prove that going forward because when you look at the teams we could potentially match up against they’re all big and physical.”
On Thursday, Lucic’s third line with Dube and Bennett not only did all the first period scoring, but demonstrated a tenacity, discipline and maturity this team has longed for.
All part of a team effort every bit as complete as Game 3.
“Being able to lock it down in this game is a big step for this group,” said Dube, 22, whose first NHL playoff goal came on one of his seven shots on the night.
“To be able to withstand their big push with the season on the line is huge for us.”
Cam Talbot’s 31-save shutout made him the only Flames goalie in team lore to blank the opposition in a clincher other than Miikka Kiprusoff, who blanked Detroit in 2004.
In a series that was supposed to be all about Connor Hellebuyck, Talbot was, by far, the better netminder in a duel against the likely Vezina winner.
No small task.
“We talked about the importance of defending this time of year and we did that extremely well – and whenever we had a breakdown Cam was there for us,” said Ward, who deemed his netminder the series MVP.
“That’s a huge step for us and it starts with Looch. I can’t say enough about what he brings in terms of experience. He’s a calming influence. He sets the tone off the opening draw there. I’ve seen him do this before, where he’s able to become this emotional leader for you and put a team on his back. I thought the fight settled us in and the guys got a big lift from it.”