The Flames salute their fans after winning Game 3 of their first-round series against Vancouver. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Game 2 may have shown Calgary’s inexperience, but Game 3 was a showcase of how dominating the Flames’ young talent can be. If Vancouver can’t stop getting mixed up in the physical game, it might be the Canucks, not the underdog Flames, who go home.
Maybe there’s more to these Flames than last-second heroics and a head-scratching ability to defy everything their underlying numbers say. Through three games of their first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary looks like a team that doesn’t deserve to be called an underdog.
What makes the Flames so interesting through three games isn’t that they’ve been winning – they did that enough all season in so many miraculous ways – but how they’ve been victorious. While most believed any hope in the series for Calgary would rely on the play of young guns Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and T.J. Brodie, they’ve instead gotten by in part because of the play of another, unheralded rookie, Michael Ferland.
Heading into Game 3, Ferland was already a thorn in the Canucks’ side, dishing out hits and playing the role of agitator to near perfection. Aside from a mishap in the first game of the series when Derek Dorsett goaded him into a penalty, Ferland was doing a commendable job walking the fine line between hitting everything that moved and heading to the penalty box with regularity. Through the first two games of the series, Ferland had thrown 10 hits. He added another nine in Game 3, including a huge check on Canucks blueliner Luca Sbisa.
If the effects of his hits weren’t showing on the score sheet, they were in the very visible frustration from Vancouver. His physical play created the hostility that led to the brouhahas and dustups that turned the Canucks’ focus from winning the game to exacting revenge. And while Ferland was doing his thing, Calgary’s other young stars, the ones that will make or break the Flames’ run, have been taking care of business.
At times in Game 3, it appeared the puck was on a string for Gaudreau – a moment in the third period when he nearly spun Vancouver defenseman Chris Tanev into the ice with a series of consecutive spin moves stands out in particular. When Gaudreau was flying down the ice or handling the puck, he made the Canucks’ defense look uncomfortable. Combine that with the natural goal scoring ability Monahan has shown and the veteran patience and poise of Brodie and you’ve got a winning combination. Though adding Ferland to the mix is one thing, it seems no matter who Vancouver attempted to shut down Sunday, another hero was bound to pop up. Case in point, Sam Bennett.
The 18-year-old Flames super prospect who is only weeks removed from playing in the OHL scored the game-winning goal Sunday. The tally was the first of his NHL career and came on a play where Bennett showed his ability to drive to the net and score dirty goals. Much like the Flames, Bennett simply found a way.
Throughout Sunday’s game, Calgary’s knack to turn the puck back up ice at a moments’ notice following a shot block or quick turnover left Vancouver scrambling to get set. It seems to be a running theme, too, and something that should worry Canucks’ coach Willie Desjardins. In addition, the Flames cycle game, when working, had the Canucks on the run.
All of these things – the speed, tenacity, puck handling and creativity of their attack – come from Calgary’s youth. While Game 2’s 4-1 defeat may have shown every bit of the Flames’ inexperience, Game 3 was enough to make a believer out of even the strongest doubters.
When it comes to advanced statistics, which in the regular season painted a much different picture of the Flames than the one we’ve seen in the post-season thus far, Calgary has actually fared quite well. Though the shot attempts percentage in each of the first three games has been decidedly in favor of Vancouver, the unblocked shot attempts percentage indicates Calgary has actually been able to control stretches of the play thanks to their proclivity to get bodies in shooting lanes and step in front of pucks.
Of course, that can cause problems. For instance, Jannik Hansen’s late goal for the Canucks came on a screened shot that Flames netminder Jonas Hiller had no chance at seeing through the mess of bodies in front of him. However, don’t expect Calgary’s approach to change. The more opportunities or pucks to the net the Flames block, the higher their chances of winning this series seems to be, simply because they can strike so quickly when turning the puck up ice.
As this series unfolds, as the fists fly and the penalty minute totals skyrocket, Calgary’s youthful exuberance is making this series much more interesting than many would have expected. If the Canucks can’t keep pace, and especially if they can’t stop getting caught up in trading punches, maybe the Flames will shock everyone again.
There aren’t many who imagined this group to be in the post-season and fewer believed they would play into May. But Calgary’s two wins from it now and if Sunday is any indication, it won’t be the Flames heading for the early summer.