Flames enter high-pressure Game 7 on a razor’s edge of hope and dread

Eric Francis and Dan Murphy chat about the importance of Calgary Flames defenceman Chris Tanev, players who never played in Game 7, and the nervousness from the fans.

CALGARY – Will it be Johnny Gaudreau’s last game with the Calgary Flames, or a dramatic exorcising of past demons?

The beginning of the end for the team’s talented core, or a stepping stone into the province’s most anticipated playoff matchup in over three decades?

The Edmonton Oilers did their part Saturday. Tonight we find out if the Flames can also hold serve.

Game 7 against a surprisingly game Dallas Stars squad will be played at the Saddledome on a razor’s edge of hope and dread.

With all that’s at stake, it’s clear which team is burdened by the additional pressure.

So much is on the line, with the narrative flipping dramatically with either result against a stingy Dallas team playing with house money.  

A Flames win would end seven years without a Round 2 appearance, landing Calgary smack dab into the first Battle of Alberta in 31 years.

And while history is not on the Flames side, keep in mind the last Game 7 scare this team overcame at home kickstarted the franchise’s only Stanley Cup run 33 years back.

They too had the star power, the goaltending, the coaching and the depth this club rode to the Pacific Division title as the hottest NHL club the final few months.

Alas, here they are, on the precipice of disaster after failing to close out the series Friday in Dallas. 

The decided underdog has survived by giving the Flames a taste of the medicine Sutter’s squad dished out in 2004 when they deployed a stifling defence and a hot goalie to make a shocking run to the final.

That run gave birth to the C of Red, which will descend in and around the Dome Sunday night in stirring fashion, willing their team to get over the hump that has dogged this group for years.

They know the backdrop: this club has advanced to the second round just twice since the Cup was won here in 1989.

Just as Leafs fans figured before Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss to Tampa, surely it’s time to move the franchise forward.

Given the expectations, it’s unrealistic for Flames players to enjoy the moment.

But they must embrace it.  

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Three 40-goal men, a Vezina Trophy finalist and the obvious coach of the year versus a stifling defence and a 23-year-old goalie who threatens to derail a season of snowballing excitement and expectations.

As lopsided as it seemed on paper, Darryl Sutter was right when he said Saturday, “This series deserves a Game 7. The score is 12-12.”

Full marks to Rick Bowness and his Stars for being every bit as good as the Flames in this matchup. 

Two years after eliminating the Flames in the bubble and advancing to the Cup final, it’s a veteran group that knows what it takes.

Conversely, the Flames have nine players in the lineup who have never won a series. 

What’s needed now is a hero, young or old.

“For guys that haven’t been in Game 7s, it’s time to step up,” said Sutter, whose team has half as many players as the 18 Stars skaters with Game 7 experience.

“If there’s guys in this series who haven’t been as productive as they’d like, it’s an opportunity to be a hero.”

There are plenty of candidates there.

Though nine players in the Flames lineup have never won a series, the team put together a solid effort in their first effort to close Dallas out.

The man who knows most about these scenarios is Sutter, who has a 7-3 record in Game 7’s.

His legendary ability to prepare players will be key to setting the table for how his team will react to the pressure, the noise, the situation.

The Flames insist they learned plenty from their playoff exits two and three years ago.

We’ll find out how much tonight.

We’ll also find out if Chris Tanev is able to anchor a blue line so dependent on his leadership. 

He left Game 6 after two Stars players fell on him while he lay prone on his stomach.

Few people expect him to be back anytime soon.

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Nikita Zadorov avoided possible suspension Saturday for a Game 6 hit on Luke Glendening. While you can expect he’ll bring the physicality that has become one of the team’s trademarks, don’t expect him to be searching to settle any scores with Jamie Benn.

The focus will have to be on nothing but the win.

The entire province is counting on it.

The stakes are that high, the moment is that big.

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