The abbreviated season brought about by the NHL lockout will have numerous effects that traditional 82-game regular seasons do not have. As the NHL season is limited to 48 games, there is now no such thing as a luxurious error. The season itself is a sprint so teams must play accordingly, truly treating each period with the importance they now have.
For the opening 20 minutes yesterday, the Flames did that with aplomb. The inaugural game for new head coach Bob Hartley started with the up-tempo play that the coach had promised to implement, and it was quite possibly the most exciting period of hockey the Flames have played in years. What were once trivial dump-ins were now carries into the zone, what were once stay at home defencemen found themselves skating up to join the rush, and a typical shot total for a Flames first period in past seasons was dwarfed by their shot clock total after the opening frame yesterday- 16. The Flames fired 16 shots on goal and limited the Sharks to 9. At this point, the Flames roster were likely the only people not surprised in the sold-out Scotiabank Saddledome. Optimism is one thing, dominance is another.
Mikael Backlund, teetering on the precipice of being branded a draft bust, was electric. His passes were not just crisp but also creative, firing accurate laterals to open teammates while bewildered Sharks defenders were drawn to him. Later in the period, the Swedish Flame could have been confused with compatriot Peter Forsberg as he used that same speed to split the San Jose defence that clearly was not expecting such an outburst. With the Flames desperately thin at centre to open the season, Backlund certainly made the most of his opportunity to shine.
An even bigger surprise of the opening period was the serviceable penalty killing of Steve Begin, playing in his first NHL game since
2010-2011 when he suited up in 2 games with the Nashville Predators. A question mark in the Flames training camp, the bubble player with a tryout contract likely made the squad due to the absence of off-season acquisition Roman Cervenka. He put any questions about his injury riddled past and advanced age to rest as he was a crossbar away from scoring on a shorthanded breakaway goal. Couple that missed opportunity with a post rung by rookie Sven Baertschi, the Flames could have left the opening twenty minutes with a 3-0 lead. Alas, they would have to settle with a 1-0 lead thanks to a Lee Stempniak power play marker.
Unfortunately, the Flames overplayed their hand as the rest of the game belonged to San Jose as 4 unanswered goals gave the Sharks a 4-1 road win. Three of those goals came in an abysmal 2nd period effort that has become common Calgary, as the aggressive offence and team defensive responsibility regressed into a period where they were penalized 3 times, being scored on 3 times, and mustering a meagre 4 shots on goal while San Jose peppered Miikka Kiprusoff with 14. They responded well in the third period, but the weak middle frame would prove to be the undoing as the deficit proved insurmountable. Consistency was a frequent critique against the Flames last season, and it certainly was complicit in yesterday’s loss.
While the re-branded Flames certainly showed some promise, the absences of Cervenka and Jiri Hudler certainly were apparent. While the former has yet to play a game in the NHL, it is hard to argue that the system idealized by Hartley suits offensively skilled players with a penchant for playmaking creativity- which is the primary reason general manager Jay Feaster added the two Czechs in the off-season. Unfortunately, the Flames on-ice product last night closely resembled the team that closed out last season- give and take a Dennis Wideman and an Olli Jokinen. While there was some definite promise, the thinness down the middle will prevent Hartley’s vision from being realized early on as he simply lacks the tools in his current lineup.
The Flames looked at the cards they were dealt and played a fantastic hand of poker in the first period. In the end, the Flames were bluffing as they were left with a measly Ace high while San Jose masterfully crafted a straight- four straight. The Flames take the ice again this evening against a Ducks team that surprised Vancouver 7-3 on the road on Saturday, it will be interesting to the see how the Flames respond to a lackluster performance against a team brimming with confidence.