Everything had seemed to come easily for the Ducks in these playoffs, through a first-round sweep of the Winnipeg Jets and continuing through two solid home victories over the plucky Calgary Flames in the Western Conference semifinals. The Ducks had some bumps and bruises, but they dominated the Jets and carried that command with them to Calgary — at least until the final minute of the third period Tuesday.
After getting the benefit of a dubious call with six minutes and 17 seconds left in the third period, when a goal that surely should have counted was disallowed by the NHL's situation room on the basis that there was no conclusive evidence the puck had completely crossed the goal line, the Ducks still couldn't clamp down on the remarkably resilient Flames and fell, 4-3, in overtime. The Ducks now must hope that Calgary hasn't steered the series in its favor and that they can regain control in Game 4, to be played Friday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
"You're not going to go 16-0 in the playoffs," left wing Matt Beleskey said, philosophically. "It's one loss. Regroup. We've got two days off here. Hard days of practice and off we go."
The Ducks still lead the series, two games to one, and that's no small feat. But had they held on they would have been in position Friday to finish things off.
They were less than a minute from moving within one victory of a berth in the Western Conference final but the clock stopped and they were jolted back to reality, yielding the tying goal with 19.5 seconds left in the third period while Calgary had a five-on-three advantage after pulling goaltender Karri Ramo. They had a few scoring chances in overtime but couldn't convert, which cost them. With a delayed penalty pending against them and late in a shift, Calgary's Mikael Backlund whipped a long shot past a screened Frederik Andersen 4:24 into overtime to trigger roars from the Flames' faithful.
There was some confusion over whether the Ducks thought they had touched the puck and that the whistle would blow before Backlund scored, but play continued and Backlund's shot got past Andersen. "It was tough to pick up with all the bodies in front," Andersen said.
The poise, patience and discipline that had become the Ducks' hallmark in their sweep of Winnipeg and their first two victories over the Flames deserted them on Tuesday. The Flames pushed them, and for the first time in this series—for the first time in seven playoffs games this spring — the Ducks didn't push back.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, the voice of calm this season and in the postseason, maintained his cool after the game, setting a tone of reflection backed by a continued belief in their strengths, though they didn't show all of those strengths Tuesday.
"They haven't quit all year. We didn't expect that," Getzlaf said of the Flames. "I didn't think we played our best game tonight. We made some errors that were uncharacteristic, but it's bound to happen. You're in the playoffs. It's going to happen."
But it hadn't happened until Tuesday for the Ducks. They had almost forgotten what it felt like to lose, and it didn't feel good. It stung, and it should have, after losing with so little time left.
"We've just got to win the next one," Andersen said. "That's what we want to do right now."
They're strong enough, he said, that they don't need to recover emotionally, just tactically.
"We're happy about being up, 2-1. They're a good team," he said. "We've just got to refocus until Friday. We have two good days of practice now and we'll work on some things to do better and I'm sure we'll be better on Friday."
Getzlaf said the same thing about the two-day break before the next game. "We know we came here to steal one and we've got a big task ahead of us in Game 4," he said. "We've got to have the same mentality. We've got to go out and play our game. Execute better. Get better. Because they're going to be better. They were a good team tonight and they're going to be better next game."
If the Ducks' playoff path was smooth until now, it isn't anymore.