Johnson: Hitmen’s Game 2 woes are identifiable and fixable
Calgary’s 6-0 loss looks bad, but better discipline, more offence and more blocked shots would solve their problems
They came back with the coveted split. Have, until further notice, wrestled home-ice advantage away from the series favourites.
None of that should be forgotten, despite the enormity of the 6-0 score line in Friday’s out-back-in-the-woodshed hiding up north at Rexall Place.
“I just think we can play . . . better,” reasoned Calgary Hitmen boss Mike Williamson on Monday, the eve of Game 3 of an all-square Western Hockey League Eastern Conference final. “In just about every facet. I think we can skate a little bit better. I think we can take time and space away a little bit better. I think we can be harder on the puck a little bit better.
“I think we’ve played OK. Our goalie’s been fantastic, but I don’t think as a group we’ve played great. We’ve had stretches we’ve been happy with, but we haven’t put 60 minutes together yet. Now part of that is because we’re playing a very good hockey team.
“But also I think if we’re going to be successful in this series, we’re going to have to take it up a level.
“And I believe that’s a level we have in us.”
The three days to step back, take a deep breath and re-calibrate after sifting through the debris field of Game 2’s third-period meltdown have been of immense benefit, say one and all on the Calgary side of the equation.
The league-pace-setting, much-fancied Edmonton Oil Kings responded to the Hitmen’s surprise 3-2 OT win in the opener with what many onlookers would consider a definitive statement game the next night.
Now it’s up to Williamson’s men to return serve with a baseline winner.
“I know I’d have taken a split going up there,” said captain Cody Sylvester. “So we’re not unhappy at 1-1. Not at all. We can’t dwell on the second game. It’s in the past. That’s how playoffs are. You lose a game, you’ve got to put it right behind you.
“We haven’t played our best hockey these last couple, so it’s been nice to refocus, regroup and try to start performing the way we know we can. Getting pucks in deep. Not turning them over so much. I don’t think we’ve worked as we need to.
“We definitely have to bring our ‘A’ game to beat Edmonton and, to be quite honest, we haven’t done that yet.”
And still they find themselves actually in a measure of control.
The to-do list for tonight and Wednesday’s followup is mercifully short, and fairly obvious:
* Create more offence (the Hitmen have dented Edmonton puck-stopper Laurent Brossoit for only three goals and averaged 21 shots through the two games).
* The queue to the penalty box simply can’t continue to be as long as the line for tickets to the Biebs’ gurgling “As Long as You Love Me” summer tour (the Oil Kings were the beneficiaries of a mind-boggling 14 powerplays Friday).
* Goaltender Chris Driedger deserves a little better protection (At this rate, 85 shots already inflicted, he’ll be ready for a rubber room by the time the series shifts back up north Friday).
Nothing that needs deep, introspective analysis. Pretty basic stuff, actually. Still, easier said than done, of course.
“Hey, we’re still in good spot,” reminded Williamson. “And I think our guys know that. After winning the first one, we were in position to steal another one — we had a great opportunity at 1-0 — but it slipped away on us. If you reverse it, we lost the first one and took Game 2, we’d be ecstatic right now.
“The big picture is we’re at 1-1, it’s a best-of-five and we have an opportunity to put ourselves ahead here.”
Not only the locale is changing tonight. The tone of this series, the initiative taken, needs an overhaul from a Hitmen perspective, as well. The wounds, mostly self-inflicted, are still fresh from Friday. They need to be more proactive in the familiar cradle of the Scotiabank Saddledome.
“Any time you lose, it’s easier to get the guys to reset,” agreed Williamson. “We have to realize — and our guys do — how fine a line it’s going to be between winning and losing at this time of year. You have to give yourselves the best chance and we didn’t do it (in Game 2).
“I think Edmonton’s probably saying the same things we are. I’m sure they feel they left a little on the table the first two games, as well.
“Yeah, I’m optimistic. If we’d gone out and played absolutely the best hockey we had all year, squeezed the best out of every single guy in that room, and been down 2-0 or even 1-1, we might be saying to ourselves ‘Geez, where do we go from here?’
“But I don’t think we’ve done that yet.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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