The Flames really couldn’t have chosen a better motto for these playoffs than #NeverQuit.
Going into this series, I think most of us knew the Flames were going to have an extremely tough time against the Ducks. Sure, they had a chance against the Canucks; those were two teams roughly on each other’s level all season long.
The Ducks, on the other hand, pulled away from the rest of the Pacific teams for a reason. They were the only ones to have a winning record against the Flames for a reason. And they only got better as the trade deadline passed.
The most we could probably ask for was to simply not get swept, but going into the Saddledome already down 2-0, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. Especially not when the Ducks seemed so firmly in control of, well, everything.
Although the Flames had yet to be beaten at home for a reason, and that reason came out loud and in full force, from unlikely goal scorer to unlikely goal scorer.
A whole other force
These playoffs, the Flames have been a completely different team at home than when away. They only have one road win to show for those particular efforts, and it came last minute on the back of what had not exactly been a stellar game in Vancouver.
I did not go to Game 3 against the Ducks, but I did go to Game 2 in Anaheim. Based on what I experienced in person, and then ended up watching and hearing secondhand accounts from, there are two things that I am certain about:
- The Saddledome is the place to be these playoffs.
- Flames fans are a ridiculously united force that would honestly be terrifying if it wasn’t over something as mundane as sports.
To point one, the Honda Center is relatively quiet. It’s nice enough, and a lot of Ducks fans are really cool people, but there are empty seats and sometimes the Flames fans are louder than the Ducks ones.
To point two, every time my group came across another group of Flames fans at the Pond – and this was a very, very frequent occurrence – there was instant acknowledgment, cheering, and yelling at each other. Not even just the Pond; this happened a lot in Disneyland itself, too, from the bar in Downtown Disney to the middle of a ride.
If fans can find one another so easily and instantly unite in enemy territory, the thought of everyone together on home ice is terrifying.
And awesome, in the proper sense of the word.
Eleven year old heartbreak revisited
Things got really interesting when it looked like Sam Bennett had completely vindicated the decision to burn a year of his entry level contract.
The situation was familiar: hey, that was a really close save, I wanna see that again. Wait, that wasn’t a save. That was a goal. Yeah, the puck definitely crossed the line. That’s a OH GOD ARE YOU NOT REVIEWING IT? REVIEW IT NOW. NOW NOW NOW DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN, THIS CANNOT HAPPEN AGAIN.
And after several minutes of Toronto doing its damnedest to figure things out, as well as several minutes of very insistent claims on Twitter (because, you know, #ItWasIn), we got the call. The game was sure to be tied. There’s no way they could do this to us again. No. Freaking. Way.
For one moment, the air went out when it was announced as inconclusive, and therefore, not a goal.
The air sharply returned so as to fuel hockey fans throughout Calgary with the complete and utter fury of the fire of 10,000 suns.
Or at least it did for me. That was an incredibly angry building. That was an incredibly incredulous team. And that was fans sitting or standing there wondering, How did this happen? How could this have possibly happened to us again? There was white surrounding the puck. There is no doubt whatsoever that was in. How can they keep doing this to us?
I can’t remember how long it took, but anger gave way to emotional death. I continued to yell at the TV, but it was less of the “HOW DARE YOU” and righteous fury and swearing, and more of a pleading “WHY?” that made my voice waver and made me wonder why on earth I got into sports when sports had already taught me everything is heartbreak.
I bandwagoned in 2004. The Tampa Bay Lightning destroyed my first love. This wasn’t that. This was the second round, not the Final. And this was a series the Flames weren’t going to win, so really, what did it matter?
Rational thought was thoroughly punted to the side as one sentiment reverberated through my head: How can they keep doing this to us?
A familiar situation
Calling no goal on what very much looked like a goal wasn’t the only thing that was so deja vu about the game, though.
As the Ducks won the faceoff on the kill and sent the puck down the ice, you got the feeling one of two things was going to happen. Either the Flames were gonna dance around a lot, control the puck from the perimeter, maybe get another shot or two off, but it’d all be for nothing and we’d all be left wondering what could have been all over again.
Or even, well, this:
An 11-year-old moment in time up against a tradition that firmly achieved legendary status in this season alone, and while Sam Bennett may have momentarily been Martin Gelinas, Johnny Gaudreau is simply Johnny Gaudreau.
The Flames have conditioned us this season to think they’re never out of it, even when it’s a one-goal game and there are just a few seconds left on the clock. Even when they aren’t in the offensive zone.
They just hadn’t yet come back from a situation as painfully heartbreaking as the one we were facing.
But the playoffs are new territory.
And so, the faint hope you kept kindled in the back of your heart roared right back up, the disbelief and dead inside pain at another no goal call gone thanks to one shortside shot that had the mercy to just go in.
Simultaneous total relief and happiness, right up until the point you realized the Flames hadn’t actually won it, just tied it, and there was still overtime to go… but it was all you could have asked for.
This team wasn’t supposed to make it this far. This team wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs, wasn’t supposed to win a round, was certainly not supposed to be able to have a competitive game against the Ducks. To ask for more would have been just greedy.
Although when it’s in reach, you can’t help but just ask for a little more, and this season, the Flames can’t help but oblige.
Icing on the cake
As overtime started up, I came to a realization: I owed an apology to the fans of every team I had ever wished playoff overtime against, because it is far too stressful and far too intense and far too terrifying to actually want people emotionally invested to have to watch.
Though after what happened, overtime was definitely preferable to no overtime, even though it felt kind of like a punishment for just wanting more, rather than keeping hope alive.
Especially when the Ducks danced with the puck in the Flames’ zone and the only thing that stopped them from doing something awful was Karri Ramo.
And the Flames not only putting a stop to that, and not only bringing the puck into the offensive zone – an issue that very much plagued them in Anaheim – but to draw a call. And then for Bob Hartley to make what probably was, without hyperbole, the best coaching decision of his career, and send Mikael Backlund out as the extra attacker.
Mikael Backlund, with so little offence to show for in the playoffs despite possibly being the team’s best forward, with possession stats through the roof, and then on a six-on-five situation, and finally, a playoff goal to go with them.
There’s no way this is real life.
Total roller coaster of emotions
This season, the Flames have given us everything we could have possibly asked for and gone beyond even that. After a certain point, you have to wonder when it will end. (That certain point may have been staying in the playoff race in 2015, let alone getting a second round victory, which is just ridiculous.)
Seriously, though: when does this end? Nothing about this feels probable at all. It felt like it was about to end last night. As much as the Flames are known for comebacks, and being down 0-3 in a series only to reverse sweep would be the ultimate comeback, that’s not likely. And it looked like the Flames were about to go down 0-3 when Bennett’s goal wasn’t counted.
How does this keep up? Do they stay undefeated at home? Do they do the thing and actually take a game in Anaheim? Does this team, in the second year of its rebuild, make it to the third round? At what point are we not getting ahead of ourselves and instead simply accepting what’s going to happen?
Everything pointed towards the Flames losing last night. They couldn’t hold a lead. The Ducks are the better team. The goal was waived off.
Johnny Gaudreau tied it with 20 seconds to go, Mikael Backlund’s first ever playoff goal was an overtime winner, and for the past six periods (including overtime) of this series, the Flames have looked like they can compete with the Ducks.
From rage, to despair, to cautious hope, to unbridled joy. What’s next?