Flames move into second wild-card spot with chaotic win over Golden Knights
An emergency backup goalie appearance. Multiple goalie run-ins. A third period comeback. And a last-second overtime goal versus the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Monday’s 2-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights had everything and then some for the 17,000-plus in attendance at the Saddledome, and Calgary now sits in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Flames netminder Jacob Markstrom skated in the morning but experienced flu-like symptoms and could not suit up. At around 5:30 p.m. MST, EBUG Dustin Nickel, who practises with the team as the spare goalie, awoke from a nap to see that goalie coach Jason LaBarbera texted him to be ready.
Nickel, who hadn’t played a competitive game in over 10 years, lives close to the Saddledome and sped to the rink.
“My goal was to go out there and stay out of everyone’s way as much as possible,” he said.
“There was so much going through my head at that point,” he said.
“I was hoping he was getting up…it was a little bit of a whirlwind.”
Vladar knew he had no choice but to get up, given who was backing him up.
“[Noah Hanifin] told me right away, ‘You’ve got to play,’” Vladar said, “‘We’ve got an EBUG on the bench.’”
“I looked over at him,” blueliner MacKenzie Weegar, who scored the winner, said.
“I saw there was a little glimmer of hope that maybe he’d get a shot. Maybe the nerves were coming in.”
Vladar's heroics ultimately paved the way for Weegar’s game-winner.
The 26-year-old expected to be the backup on Monday and stayed on the ice longer than Markstrom in the morning. He also found out in the late afternoon he was getting the start. It was far from a routine evening for Vladar, but he was excellent. He stopped 27 of 28 shots, including multiple breakaways and two-on-ones.
“If you play two years for Darryl [Sutter], you’ve just got to be ready for every single game,” he quipped. “I thought [the start] was a joke until the national anthems and then I was just trying to give our team a chance to win.”
“He did an amazing job,” head coach Ryan Huska said. “By far his best game of the year…there were some key moments in the game where it could have gone the other way off some turnovers and he made some big saves for us. He was most definitely the first star in my books.”
Weegar was bailed out by Vladar on an offensive zone giveaway that led to a breakaway. A period later, he paid it forward by sniping the winner with 4.8 seconds remaining.
“That was all I had left,” he said, of the end-to-end rush.
“There was probably no backcheck there. I left it all out there, saw an opening, and got off the ice as fast as I could.”
Monday was a showcase of how much this Flames team has grown over this young season. After a tough start, they’re now in a playoff spot. Vladar was outstanding. Rookie Connor Zary notched another point. They reined in the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Quietly, Calgary has the ninth-best points percentage in the league in November. They now lead the league in games won when trailing after the first period.
The night was also all about the new teammate and his moment in the spotlight. Nickel, who owns his own business and is in graduate school, has been the team’s practice goalie for several seasons. He is loved by Flames players and staff members. He tore his groin near the end of last season while helping forwards during practice. They rallied around Nickel and wanted to make it an unforgettable experience.
“He’s a good kid,” Huska said. “The guys love having him around…we’re happy for him.”
“The morale comes up when we see Dusty come in,” Weegar said.
"The smiles get picked up and you’re making it a special night for him.”