Or "how I have yet to stop panicking and learn to love the late third period collapse," or as my co-worker calls it: "making it interesting."
A win is a win, and this was a big one. The Flames were fortunate enough to get the Sharks on the second night of back-to-back games during San Jose's post-olympic slump or as some are calling it "playoff preparation," and they capitalized on the Sharks' defensive miscues early and in a timely fashion, which would prove to be crucial in the game's dying minutes. Fear The Fin is calling this game one of Dan Boyle's worst as a Shark.
Despite the shot clock favouring the Sharks in the first period, I thought the Flames did a good job keeping the Sharks to the outside and limiting any especially dangerous chances. The best scoring chance for the Sharks probably came in the opening minute and could have been disastrous but Kipper was there with two great saves to stop San Jose from taking the early lead. Counting those first two chances that the Sharks had, I would say they probably only had one other potentially dangerous scoring chance and maybe four or five altogether.
I'm not entirely sure of the criteria for counting scoring chances, but by my eye, the Flames may have had about the same, if not one or two less. Despite not scoring on their opening powerplay, the pressure the Flames generated on it lead to their first goal with Iginla open ad headed to the net (what a novel concept!) and directing the puck in. A mid-second period powerplay provided some quality chances as well, and resulted in a goal shortly after. Both were nearly negated by an abysmal third-period man advantage shortly after the Sharks scored to pull within two, but I'll take two above-average powerplays per game, at this point.
Eric Nystrom is on a tear. He has goals in back-to-back games and points in three of his last five. He already has a career high in goals (9) and points (16) and at twenty-seven years old, is evolving into a dependable two-way player. I think you know your defence is having a bad night when he manages to sneak in behind them and score. I like to think of him as a young Craig Conroy. Speaking of our Elder Statesman, his performance in the faceoff circle has been nothing short of inspiring recently, as he won 100% of his draws against Detroit. In fact, the whole team has improved in the faceoff circle recently; debate over the importance of the faceoff all you will, but a higher faceoff percentage leads to greater puck possession, which ultimately drives positive results, in most cases.
The other two thirds of the fourth line turned in impressive performances as well. Mikael Backlund registered two assists, led the team with four shots on goal, and created his fair share of chances in just under eight minutes of ice time. I thought he did a great job of battling along the boards in the offensive zone and showed speed and patience, an overall good outing with the exception of the defensive blunder that led to the Sharks' second goal. He could benefit from being more aggressive in his own zone. The Sharks' bottom six was a documented weakness coming into this game, so the fact that the third and fourth lines were able to expose that and have success is a big positive.
After several lacklustre outings, Matt Stajan was much improved tonight where generating offence is concerned. He was skating well and had several quality scoring opportunities. Jarome Iginla was one assist away from a Gordie Howe Hat-trick, and was far more noticeable than he has been in recent outings. After what seemed like an endless rendition of the Iginla-Stajan Disappearing Act, a night with a point from each of them is a step in the right direction. The second line is still generally ineffective, with the exception of Langkow, in the absence of Chris Higgins. Hagman has been working hard and is probably due for a goal, but Kotalik remains just as much of a waste of space as ever, and a costly one at that. Having said that, they were the only three forwards who were + in terms of Corsi.
One of my biggest gripes about this Flames team all season long has been their inability to clear the puck from their zone, and it causes me endless anxiety that can only be described as ulcer-inducing. The Flames' defenders and backcheckers are often too tentative, they lose battles for pucks along the boards and in open ice more times than I care to count, and their decision making inside their own blueline has a tendency to be poor under pressure. For the most part, this wasn't the case in this game, but these sequences led to all three Sharks' goals, two of which were scored on almost identical plays with Steve Staios playing goalie in the back half of the third period.
I also don't want to pile onto Steve Staios, but he was -2 again tonight and his being out of position was a factor in two of the Sharks' three goals. The fact that he is getting almost as much ice time as Regehr, whose play has improved dramatically of late, when he was a third-pairing defenceman in Edmonton is beyond me, not to mention the powerplay time he gets. Regehr and White were especially solid tonight, and faced the Sharks' top line the most of any defence pairing. As much as I would like to say Staios' pairing's shortcomings were solely his fault, Jay Bouwmeester was the perpetrator of a few botched clearing attempts and one particularly heinous giveaway after he beat a Sharks player to the puck.
I noted that he had been improving in his physical play recently and looked a lot more confident and less tentative defensively after a bit of a rough stretch of hockey, but that trend was reversed tonight. It was expected that the Flames would be back on their heels when confronted with a desperate, frustrated team that had lost four straight coming into this game, but their composure has to be better. Neutralizing the Sharks' first line was surely a priority going into this game and the trio of Thornton-Marleau-Heatley ended up with four points on the night, but in the end it didn't matter. If a few more bounces had gone the Sharks way, this game easily could have been tied.
One final note on the defence: it has become clear that Sarich is at his best in a limited-minutes role and when paired with Giordano, who was, to nobody's surprise here, the definition of awesome again this evening. Gio was +4 and had an assist and it appears his emergence as one of the Flames' best blueliners is getting some attention from opposing teams as well. In the first period he was sent to the ice with a shoulder-to-shoulder check which came dangerously close to his head and was hit from behind not too far from the boards by Ryan Clowe, which could have potentially been very dangerous. While he can certainly dole out physical punishment, his being in a third-pairing role perhaps puts him in danger of being targeted and victimized by the opposition's lesser players.
All in all, this was a very good game and a huge win for the good guys, and I don't want to let the events of the final few minutes spoil it. I think that this was a better game than the win against the Avs, but there's still room for improvement. Despite the Wings losing to Edmonton in a shootout after tying the game with 0.2 seconds remaining, they remain in eighth place due to having played one less game; the uphill climb continues.
The Flames take on Minnesota on Sunday in one of those bizarre early matinee games where I will likely still be half asleep at puck-drop.