It's no secret that Calgary has struggled against Anaheim for the past few years. The longest losing streak for one team in another city (by time, not number of games) is Calgary at the Honda Center (or the Arrowhead Pond, since the streak goes back far enough). There was the playoff debacle in 2006, losing game 7 at home. Even at home, they've rarely done better than a split the past few years. Tonight was a must-win (and we may as well retire that cliche, since they all are until they're eliminated) and it didn't warm the heart that the Ducks were the opposition. (Of course, I felt better when I realized that noted Duck killer Brett Sutter was in the lineup!).
But, for the second time in the last dozen games, the Flames put the hammer lock on Anaheim on home ice and won 3-1. The Ducks have a classic top heavy lineup - Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry both played over 22 minutes - and it's always interesting to see if Brent Sutter can maximize his player's abilities against a top heavy lineup. In this game, he appeared to choose the kitchen sink method.
To start the game, Rene Bourque was playing with Jarome Iginla (centered by Matt Stajan, as usual) and Craig Conroy had slotted into Daymond Langkow's slot on the second line. The thought pre-game was that Mikael Backlund might center Ales Kotalik and Niklas Hagman, but clearly the Flames line-blender does not have an all-European setting. In any event, it didn't matter much because everyone on the Flames was getting beat up for the first six minutes or so - the puck rarely left the Flames zone. At this point, Bourque and Hagman switched places; whether this was the catalyst to the improved play that followed or just coincidental timing wasn't clear. However, a Flame powerplay soon followed, and then another, and a Nigel Dawes funky deflection on said powerplay, and the slow start was forgotten.
Dawes reminds me a bit of Michael Cammalleri, if you'll allow a very stretched analogy. Cammy is a better player than Dawes, but even last year I thought his value was primarily his goal scoring, not his overall dominance of play. He was invisible more than a near-40 goal scorer should be, which is why many in the media and blogosphere questioned his value. His perceived value has since been inflated when comparing him to Olli Jokinen, although clearly a guy who can finish certainly is nice to have around. Which brings us back to Nigel Dawes. I don't see him as an impact forward but he does have a good finishing skill, with smart deflections, a decent shot, and a knack to be in the right spot. He belongs in the lineup full time (preferably 3rd or 4th line) and he adds a dimension to this team that is often missing - finish.
Anyway, the Flames spent the rest of the game as the better team, even if the flow flagged at times and neither team was accomplishing much. Calgary bounced back nicely from a fluky goal from Scott Niedermayer with Bourque scoring on yet another breakaway. Of course, the best part of that goal was the goat on the play, Corey Perry. It was nice to see as the comments piled on Perry that even his stint helping Canada win the gold medal didn't raise him above the level of "despised" in the eyes of fans of every other NHL team (to give him credit, he may have moved up from "hated" to "despised", so that's something).
Bourque had switched on for Hagman part way through this shift and it was Iggy who made the play to spring Bourque for the breakaway. However, this was one of the few shifts they played together after the first period, as Sutter appeared to want to match Conroy/Bourque with Getzlaf et al. They did a good job keeping the chances for the big line down, but weren't the only ones. As noted, Getzlaf played a ton and saw a lot of Iginla's line and even a couple of minutes against each of the 3rd and 4th liners. With all that, neither he nor the rest of the Ducks generated much at even strength.
And, most importantly, they generated nothing on the power play. Because they didn't have any power plays. Of course, this may have been the biggest factor in the game - Anaheim generates much of their offense beyond the big three from the power play and the Flame discipline was striking in this game. The Fox Sports announcers spent much of the first period talking up the Duck offense from guys like Jason Blake or Teemu Selanne, but all the goals they were talking about from recent games seemed to be powerplay goals. Without that extra man, those guys were nearly invisible. It bears repeating - if the Flames are to be successful with the lineup they've built (roll four lines, no "top line"), they have to beat up on teams that have one line, and that only works if they're not giving up power plays.
The third period played out as all a Flame fan could ask. Protecting a lead by not going into the shell. Countering Anaheim pressure with odd-man rushes which lead to great scoring chances. A nice goal by a player who clearly needed one. Niklas Hagman had his best game as a Flame. Not only did he score off a great feed from Iggy, but he could have scored three or four more. In the second period, he had one rush down the right side which reminded me why I was happy he was acquired from the Leafs. He beat his D-man one on one to the outside and before going around the back of the net, cut neatly to the front of the net and created a dangerous chance. I felt like I'd seen that against the Flames more than once when he was in Dallas, and while it didn't end up in the net, the puck stayed in the Duck end for another 30 seconds. Once again, we're left hoping that this was the first of at least ten games with this kind of effort and production.
In the end, the advanced numbers don't really tell the story of this game - there were some big Corsi plusses and minuses that don't really make sense to me. It was a good effort and a win, one more game that temporarily staves off elimination. Now the Flames hit the road for a big three game trip. Bring on the Islanders.