There is a cult of superstition that survives in the NHL today, even in an age of advanced analytics, where some people want to turn the game of hockey into a series of figures to review on a spreadsheet.
Some, like Anaheim Ducks' old-school coach Randy Carlyle, resist the siren song of the calculator and distill hockey – especially playoff hockey – down to a few known truths. Goaltending is the primary difference maker. Special teams need to be efficient. Undisciplined play can kill you.
All were contributing factors in Anaheim's 3-2 win over the visiting Calgary Flames in their playoff opener Thursday night – but they also underscored one not-so-advanced stat that the Flames just can't get past.
Calgary just doesn't win in Anaheim. Not in the playoffs since 2006. Not since the regular season in 2004.
The Flames' 25 consecutive regular-season defeats in Anaheim is an NHL record, a run of futility that's taking on a life of its own.
How many consecutive losses does it take to get rational people believing there really is such a thing as a jinx – and get them switching hotels and practice times and pregame meals and doing anything they can, sane or crazy, to change their luck?
On a night when the Flames had a 74-second two-man advantage in the final minutes as they tried to force overtime, Calgary couldn't find the tying goal, even for a few seconds when goalie Brian Elliott was on the bench for an extra attacker and the Flames played six skaters against three. It was that kind of frustrating night; and that kind of disheartening finish.
For all the things they did well, they trail the best-of-seven Pacific Division semi-final 1-0, with Game 2 set for Saturday night.
The Flames got off to the worst possible start imaginable – taking a penalty 47 seconds into the game, and then giving up a power-play goal to Ducks' captain Ryan Getzlaf five seconds later. Fans immediately fell back on what's becoming an increasingly familiar refrain – "you can't win here" they chanted at the Flames, over and over.
But soon, the Flames settled things down with a first-period power-play goal of their own, by Sean Monahan. From there, the game turned into a black-and-blue slog, the penalty killing sharpening up, a high level of play from the respective goaltenders, Elliott and John Gibson of the Ducks.
It stayed tied 1-1 until midway through the second period when Sam Bennett gave Calgary momentary hope – tipping in a pass from Kris Versteeg at the top of the goal crease past Gibson to give them their first lead of the night.
Versteeg was signed by Calgary as a free agent just before the start of the regular season and his value has incrementally risen as the year advanced.
Now, he anchors the point of the first power-play unit, awarded that duty because coach Glen Gulutzan values his play-making. Both Versteeg's goals were seeing-eyed things of beauty, and when Bennett cashed the second one, the crowd quieted noticeably.
But then came that muffed line change, which turned the tide back in Anaheim's favour. Ducks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, the former Vancouver Canucks agitator, retrieved the puck from his own zone and sent a 100-foot-plus pass to Getzlaf at the Calgary blueline, setting up one of the rare three-on-zero breakaways you'll ever see.
Elliott actually made the first save on Getzlaf, but Rickard Rakell was in a position to cash the rebound, before defensive reinforcements could arrive.
From there, Jakob Silfverberg restored Anaheim's lead, scoring their second power-play of the game, with Calgary's Lance Bouma serving a penalty for goaltender interference.
Like a lot of NHL teams, Anaheim is a model of defensive efficiency when nursing a third-period lead and they didn't give up much the rest of the way.
Flames' captain Mark Giordano was the target of boos every time he touched the puck – identified as Public Enemy No. 1 by Ducks' fans after his knee-on-knee collision with Anaheim defenceman Cam Fowler in a late-season game knocked Fowler out of the series.
With 5:49 to go in the third, Getzlaf took a run at Giordano, clobbering him with a shoulder check that might have been a little high and might have been a little late. Giordano's partner, Dougie Hamilton, saw it that way and broke his stick with a retaliatory slash, his third minor penalty of the night. All that set the stage for a series in which the nastiness quotient could get ramped up in a hurry.
Giordano was playing his first NHL playoff game in close to a decade – April of 2007 when the Detroit Red Wings were the opponents and the NHL's dominant team.
"What I take from it is remembering how calm those guys were in every situation," he said. "That's what made them so good – how well [Pavel] Datysuk, [Henrik] Zetterberg, [Nicklas] Lidstrom and all those guys played when they were under pressure."
Ten years removed from their one-and-only Stanley Cup championship, the Ducks have not exactly handled pressure well in their last few playoffs either. But they were better in the key moments than the Flames in the opener.