Through two periods, this sure appeared to be another in a long line of frustrating Flames games this year. Playing a very good team with tough PvP matchups, the Flames were losing the top 6 battles, winning the bottom 6 battles, taking too many penalties, not giving up a ton of great chances but not generating many. And they were down a goal. And 2-16-3 on the year when trailing after two. And playing a team that was 21-1-4 leading after two. And on the road.
On the other hand, the Craig Conroy - David Moss - Niklas Hagman line had a lot of jump and was dominating the lesser lights for Detroit (I'm looking squarely at you, Sparklepants) and you just had a feeling they'd be rewarded in the 3rd period for their efforts. Sure, it was hard watching Jarome Iginla, Matt Stajan and Rene Bourque in tough and generating next to nothing for two periods - incidentally, is Pavel Datsyuk not one of the top three players in the league, or is it just the Flames he looks so damn good against - but Conroy et al was about to break out!
And sure enough - Conroy et al continued to push the puck in the right direction and...continued not to score. So much for that theory. But real life has a way of blowing theory out of the water. Everyone on the team started going one-way (the good way) in the third period, including the big guns, and the whole team reaped the reward.
Six minutes into the period, the trio of Iggy, Stajan and Bourque managed to get onto the ice mid-shift against two defencemen not named Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski (in this case, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall) and a mix of forwards. One nice blue-line to blue-line pass by Steve Staios later, the Flames had a mini three on two which ended up on Iggy's stick and in the net. (In a sweet bit of irony, the forward late to the play was Datsyuk - the irony is that he wasn't quite in position to make a play because he'd just come on the ice for another forward who'd made a lazy slow change as the puck moved up ice - yes, Todd Bertuzzi just continues to give and give!).
Less than a minute later, after a 4th line shift was ended abruptly by Lidstrom knocking the stick out of Eric Nystrom's hands, the Stajan line came right back on and got the puck in deep again. This pressure led to the winning goal, and the whole sequence was a good example of how forward matchups against the other team's forwards are as important (or more important) than matching up defencemen against the other team's forwards. Detroit had also managed to change four of their five skaters - Lidstrom, Rafalski, Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom. But, Darren Helm was stuck out there instead of Datsyuk and he was a step behind the entire shift. Including at the end of the shift when he was the first to fish the puck out of the net after Bourque's goal!
Clearly, Datsyuk is the defensive conscience of that group and it was to the Flame's credit that they took advantage of his absence. Charlie Simmer mentioned at least twice in the replay of the goal that the Flames made the quick change back to Iggy's line to get away from Lidstrom and how well it worked. Never mind that the number 5 on the back Lidstrom's jersey took up half the screen while he was talking. Announcers tend to fixate on the importance of getting the shutdown defense against the top line, but this goal was as good an indication as any how that is a short sighted fixation.
It's also to the coaching staff's credit that Calgary avoided "The Shell" once they took the lead. The majority of the shots, faceoffs, and hits from the time of Bourque's goal to the Higgins goal (the what? let me check that again...yep, it definitely says Goal, Chris Higgins...) - anyway, the majority of events took place in the Red Wing zone. Also, Sutter leaned on the top three lines nearly exclusively the last 13 minutes - the last shift Jamal Mayers took is the one that included the Staios hooking penalty, and that's the kind of ice time distribution in a one goal game that I can get behind.
Robert ended his game thread preamble with the following:
As I've mentioned, this is the type of contest that might well give us a proper feel for where this Flames' season is headed.
Considering the opposition and the location of the game, this was the Flames' best effort since before the long losing streak. I'd love to feel that this is an indication the Flames' season is headed to the postseason, but we've been burned too many times to feel that. Nevertheless, it's two big points in a season where the Flames will need all they can get and it gets the blood pumping already for the Thursday home tilt with Ottawa. As fans, that's all we can ask.
Random Notes: Three games into Steve Staios' Flames career, he's 3-0. Which shows just how great a trade that was to acquire him! Honestly, I'm still not sure he's better than Adam Pardy (his poor positioning exemplified when he was forced to take a penalty mid-third period has been far too common) and his current top-4 defenceman role is cause for concern going forward. But he is 3-0!...At least two times I saw Jay Bouwmeester jumping up on the play to provide offense, which is two more times than in a typical game. Whether this lack of offensive impulse is a result of coaching or his own inhibitions I don't know. But, to be as valuable as I think he can be, he needs to join the rush more often...Congratulations Mr. Higgins, eventually we'll all remember your first Flame goal as a critical shorthanded effort (never mind the empty net). Nice to see the big smiles all around on the bench after that one.