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Breaking down the Flames’ history facing 3–2 series deficits

At this point, trailing in a playoff series (especially to the likes of Andrew Cogliano and Corey Perry) feels like all-too-common ground for supporters of the Calgary Flames.

That said, while the Flames’ current 3–2 series disadvantage at the hands of the Dallas Stars is hardly an ideal circumstance, it’s actually relatively successful compared to the nature of their recent playoff defeats at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks and Colorado Avalanche.

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Perry and Cogliano’s Ducks vanquished the Flames in five games in 2015, as did the Colorado Avalanche in 2019. Even worse, those same Ducks swept the Flames in 2017. After the lopsided results of those match-ups, perhaps the Flames should feel reassured knowing that, this time, they’ve made it a little bit further.

Or maybe not. As you’re about to see, the Flames haven’t exactly experienced great fortune in the past when faced with a 3–2 series in favour of their opponents. In fact, they’re still searching for their first victory in such a situation.

Yes, the Flames’ series record is 0–9 when entering Game 6 of a series on the brink. But that’s not to say that they’ve always gone down without a fight. A few times, they’ve stretched things out to seventh heaven. But never beyond that.

As the often misquoted Spanish philosopher George Santayana once offered, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, let us venture forth into the realm of memory to examine the trials faced by the unsuccessful past brethren of the Flaming C. Maybe, with enough luck, the 2020 edition of the Flames can become the first to overcome the 3–2 deficit that struck down these nine teams.

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1980–81: League Semi-final vs. Minnesota

The Flames’ inaugural season in Calgary saw them achieve a feat they’ve only managed three more times since: they won two playoff series in one run. How generous of the Hockey Gods!

Led by their first star, Kent Nilsson, and his still-team record 131 points, the Calgary Flames finished their first season as the 7–seed in the NHL. Yes, in the NHL, not in the Western Conference or the Campbell Conference or anything like that. This was back in the days before wild-cards or divisional rivalry matchups, back when the NHL let the top 16 teams in the league make the playoffs and seeded them solely by points. So the best team in the NHL played the 16th–best team, and so on and so forth. Totally ridiculous and prehistoric!

The Flames swept the Chicago Blackhawks (featuring a rookie Denis Savard) in three games in the preliminary round before moving on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in round two. That 1-to-16 seeding mechanism sure created some unique matchups, and the Flames’ only series against the Flyers turned out to be a doozy. Calgary blew a 3–1 series lead and had to head back to the Spectrum in Philly for Game 7 after suffering a narrow 3–2 loss in Game 6 on Corral ice. Ken Houston’s series-clinching goal in hostile territory sent the Flames to the final four.

The perpetual underdog Minnesota North Stars met them in the semi-finals. After splitting two relatively tight-checking games at the Corral to open the series, the Flames’ goaltending let them down at the Met in Minneapolis. Pat Riggin allowed five goals on 30 shots in Game 3 as the Flames lost 6–4, and Reggie Lemelin was pulled in Game 4 after surrendering six goals on just 27 shots (the Flames eventually lost 7–4). 

The series shifted back to Calgary for Game 5, where, on the strength of Bob MacMillan’s two goals and a strong bounce-back performance from Riggin, the Flames stole a 3–1 win to cut their deficit to 3–2. But, at the end of the day, that Minnesota team, led by the likes of Ciccarelli, Broten, and Bobby Smith, was just too good. They took a first-period lead in Game 6 on a powerplay goal by Al MacAdam and never looked back, eventually winning 5–3 to advance to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final.

But, like when they ran into Mario Lemieux’s back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991, the North Stars found a dynasty awaiting them in the finals. Mike Bossy and the New York Islanders beat them in five games to capture their second of four consecutive Stanley Cups. 

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1983–84: Campbell Conference Semi-Final vs. Edmonton

Speaking of dynasties… 

After defeating the Vancouver Canucks in their opening-round series (quite a common refrain throughout their history), the Flames marched on to face their provincial rivals from Edmonton for the second year in a row. The previous year’s matchup hadn’t been very close, with Edmonton quickly defeating the Flames in five games en route to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship. 

Surprise, surprise, the Oilers were a team of destiny yet again in 1984. Wayne Gretzky put up 205 points? Ho-hum, he’d put up 212 two years prior. They were a wagon. But in the 1984 playoffs, the Flames were their toughest test. The Oilers sliced through the Jets in the Smythe Division qualifiers without losing a game. They easily beat the North Stars in the Campbell Conference Finals — another sweep. The Islanders managed to steal a game against them in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Oilers resoundingly took the other four.

Against the Flames in the second round, though? That took the Oilers’ maximum effort. Sure, Edmonton shot out to a 3–1 series lead, but the Flames kept clawing back. Mike Eaves scored the winner in Game 5 (in Northlands Coliseum, no less) to cut the lead to one game. Game 6 went to overtime knotted at four, but Lanny McDonald sent the faithful at the newly-christened Olympic Saddledome into a frenzy when he scored the winner just 1:04 into the extra frame. 

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The Flames had forced a seventh game. But the Oilers, as usual, came through, scoring seven goals in Game 7 to take a 7–4 win, the series, and, eventually, their second of five Stanley Cups.

1986–87: Smythe Division Semi-final vs. Winnipeg

1987 was a pretty good year for Dale Hawerchuk (rest in peace). At the 1987 Canada Cup, he took home MVP honours after helping to form a dominant Soviet-busting trio with fellow Hall-of-Famers Gretzky and Lemieux. In addition to his success on the international stage, 1987 also saw Hawerchuk take his Winnipeg Jets on his longest playoff run with the team.

The current edition of the Calgary Flames should not look back to their 1987 counterparts for any Hawerchuk-esque heroics entering Game 6. Although those Flames valiantly fought back in Game 5 with a close 4–3 win after falling down 3 games to 1 to begin the series, Game 6 was a real bloodbath. The Jets scored early and often, going up 4–0 in the first period (including a powerplay marker by Hawerchuk). The final score: 6–1. Series over. Ouch! Not the way any team wants to follow up a trip to the Stanley Cup Final… 

1989–90: Smythe Division Semi-final vs. Los Angeles

…and they did it again, three years later, this time coming off an actual championship!

Mike Vernon vs. Kelly Hrudey turned out to be a much more high-scoring series than the quality of the two goaltenders involved would suggest — although, to be fair, Wayne Gretzky was involved. The Flames tied the series at one win apiece with a rollicking 8–5 victory at the Saddledome in Game 2, but it was Game 4 that truly shattered records.

Down two games to one, the Flames decided to opt for the rarely-seen strategy of allowing three players to score hat-tricks against them in the same game. Tony Granato, Dave Taylor, and Tomas Sandstrom all lit the lamp three times each (Gretzky put up a goal and four assists) for the Kings en route to a 12–4 L.A. win.

On the brink, the Flames came back in Game 5 with a 5-1 win. But, now down 3–2 in the series, they bowed out in Game 6 in heartbreaking fashion, surrendering a double-overtime series-winner to Mike Krushelnyski. The Flames wouldn’t win another playoff series for 14 years.

1990–91: Smythe Division Semi-final vs. Edmonton

One year later, the Flames found themselves in another 3–1 hole against Gretzky’s old team. That said, Edmonton still had Mark Messier, and they remained a formidable foe. But Calgary’s depth shined against the Oilers in 1991 in ways that it couldn’t in previous years. If only that depth hadn’t been shattered in a particularly notorious deal with Toronto a few months later…

The Flames took a close Game 5 by a score of 5–3 to cut the series deficit to 3–2 after a critical game-winning goal from shutdown defenseman Ric Nattress (who was later sent to Toronto as part of that aforementioned trade). Game 6 went to overtime and Theoren Fleury scored to become the hero before displaying his best Nail Yakupov impression by sliding all the way down the ice in celebration.

But it wouldn’t be a 1990s Flames series without a side of heartbreak. Calgary blew an early 3–0 lead in Game 7 and fell behind 4–3 after an Oilers goal by Anatoli Semenov early in the third period. But then, tough guy Ronnie Stern miraculously tied the game at four late in the third period, sending the game to overtime.

Six minutes into the extra frame, Oilers winger Esa Tikkanen flew down the middle of the ice into the Flames’ zone, cut to the right, and fired a wrist shot past helmetless Flames defenseman Frank Musil, over the glove of Mike Vernon, and into the net to complete a hat-trick. Game over. Series over. It was the last playoff game that 1989 Cup-winning goal scorer Doug Gilmour would ever play for the Flames.

1992–93: Smythe Division Semi-final vs. Los Angeles

This was another very high-scoring series between Calgary and Los Angeles. Three games in this series saw the victor score nine goals, with the Kings taking the deciding sixth game by a ridiculous 9–6 score. But how did they get there?

Like the current year, this series saw Calgary jump out to a lead of two games to one. Unsurprisingly, through three games, Kings star Wayne Gretzky managed just three points — all assists. And even though the Kings managed to battle back to tie the series in Game 4 with a 3–1 win, Gretzky was held off the scoresheet altogether.

Yeah… that didn’t last. Gretzky erupted for seven total points in the final two games of the series, with the Kings scoring 18 goals in that span. The Flames’ goaltending fell apart in Games 5 and 6, with Mike Vernon and Jeff Reese combining for a dismal .690 save-percentage in those two games. The duo allowed 18 goals on 58 shots en route to 9–4 and 9–6 losses wherein the Flames actually vastly outshot the Kings.

2006–07: Western Conference Quarterfinal vs. Detroit

After a long stretch featuring many flubbed high draft picks, the “Young Guns” marketing campaign, and even a miraculous trip to Game 7 of the Final, 2007 found the Flames back in comfortable territory: down 3–2 in the first round.

Detroit was a familiar foe for Jarome Iginla’s team. Thanks to Martin Gelinas’ OT heroics, the Red Wings had fallen to the Flames in the second round of that Cinderella run in 2004. But this time, things went very differently. The Flames were nearly run out of Joe Louis Arena in Games 1 and 2, being ridiculously outshot by a combined total of 97-35. As usual Miikka Kiprusoff was the only person keeping the scores respectable for the Flames. Then, the series shifted back to Calgary, where the Flames eked out two consecutive 3–2 wins to bring the series back to even.

In Game 5, back in Detroit, the Flames got smoked once again by a score of 5–1 (this was also the game where Jamie McLennan got suspended for a malicious slash on Johan Franzen). So, down 3–2 in the series and heading back to Calgary, the Flames gave it all they had in Game 6. Miikka Kiprusoff made 53 saves. The game ultimately went to overtime. David Moss missed an open net that would have sent the series to Game 7. And finally, in the fifth period, Johan Franzen sealed the deal to send Calgary packing.

2007–08: Western Conference Quarterfinal vs. San Jose

Surprise, surprise, the Flames once again found themselves in a 3–2 hole in the first round the very next year against San Jose. After splitting the first two games at the Shark Tank, the Flames returned home for a memorable Game 3 which saw them erase a 3–0 deficit and win after a huge hit by defenseman Cory Sarich on Sharks star Patrick Marleau. But then the Sharks won Game 4 (tying the game with just six seconds left before winning in overtime – sound familiar?) and Game 5, setting the stage for a pivotal sixth game at the Saddledome with the Flames facing elimination.

This series was much closer than the battle against the Red Wings, which routinely saw the Flames get outshot by 20 or more. Game 6 against the Sharks was a low-key affair with very few shots and goals. In the end, former Sharks captain Owen Nolan scored the winner for the Flames (his second game-winning goal of the series) and the Flames found themselves in another Game 7.

At this point, the Flames hadn’t won a Game 7 against a team not named the Canucks since 1981, when they dispatched the Flyers. (That still rings true to this day, by the way.) Spoiler alert: they lost Game 7 against the Sharks in 2008. Goals from Iginla, Nolan, and Wayne Primeau weren’t enough to save Miikka Kiprusoff from being pulled and the Flames from falling by a score of 5–3.

2008–09: Western Conference Quarterfinal vs. Chicago

If any late-2000s Flames team had a chance to break the streak of failing to come back from 3–2 deficits, it would have been the 2009 Flames. After acquiring Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, Olli Jokinen, and Jordan Leopold, this team was stacked.

But, wouldn’t you know it, they ran into a budding dynasty. The 2009 Blackhawks weren’t quite at the level of their successors, but they still boasted Kane and Toews and Keith. They quickly put the Flames into a 2–0 series hole and, while the Flames were able to crawl back to make it 2–2 again, the Blackhawks were more than ready to strike again once the series shifted back to the United Center for Game 5.

Nikolai Khabibulin put up a wall for Chicago (Miikka Kiprusoff was pulled after allowing four goals on 18 shots) and the Blackhawks took a 5–1 rout to push the Flames to the brink. At this point, the Flames didn’t have a lot of gas left in the tank. Game 6 would be Jarome Iginla’s final playoff game as a member of the Calgary Flames, and the team wouldn’t make it back to the postseason for six long years. Bertuzzi scored but, in the end, the Flames were no match for Khabibulin, who stopped 43 shots en route to a series-clinching 4–1 win for Chicago.

Against Dallas, 11 years since they last found themselves in Game 6 on the brink, the Flames aim to change their past fortunes. We’ll see if this series can feature their first successful comeback from a 3–2 series deficit. It all starts with Game 6 on Thursday.