Johnson: Calgary’s awful team defence unacceptable for veteran group
Hartley chastises his squad — ranked 28th in goals against — ahead of Thursday meeting in Nashville
NASHVILLE — This isn’t Romper Room; a bunch of still-teething, wobbly-kneed toddlers taking first, tentative baby steps inside the National Hockey League playpen.
This just happens to be the oldest group among the 30. Without exception.
Wet behind the ears is one thing. Thick between ’em quite another.
That make the disproportionate amount of blunders in defensive-zone coverage that continues to plague them a cause for blood-vessel-popping anxiety as the Calgary Flames aim to put their stuttering, lurching, heaving playoff train back on the tracks this evening.
“It’s disappointing,” murmured coach Bob Hartley following Wednesday’s practice at Bridgestone Arena. “We had a meeting this morning. I exactly told them that — (T.J.) Brodie’s the only baby on our team. So to make rookie mistakes with only one baby on your team, the equation doesn’t work.
“The guys were good about it.
“But good in meetings is one thing. Good on the ice is another thing.”
Guaranteed, 28th place in team defence doesn’t prod anybody into the playoffs. And that’s where the Flames are squatting at present. Calgary’s goals-against-average is a bloated 3.26 per game, abysmal compared to, say, co-front-runners Ottawa and Chicago, at 2.03.
The 91 goals they’ve coughed up is also the most of any Western Conference entry.
They’d better not be conning themselves into believing the return of Miikka Kiprusoff from home and the birth of son Oskar will in itself solve all the woes that beset them, either. The silent Finn has covered over more cracks than a warehouse full of Polyfilla tubes during his time as a Flame, but this issue needs addressing all over the ice and, besides, Joey MacDonald has been more than adequate when pressed into a pinch-hitting role in net.
More awareness in front of their own net and a livelier start. A substantive upgrade in those two areas would go a long, long way in endeavouring to curtail a month-long litany of pain on the road (0-6-1).
“If we had the answer,” shrugged Kiprusoff, “we’d play better. It’s about time to get it changed. We need road wins to make the playoffs. We have to start (tonight).
“We talk about it. If you look at the standings, there should be no excuses.”
There can’t be. We’re much too far along in the process. These next two starts — here Thursday and then Friday in Columbus — against direct opponents for the final spots among the Top 8 are absolutely imperative.
“You look at the standings, the way Chicago and Anaheim, it’s left a big group of teams that are right there,” said captain Jarome Iginla. “It’s literally two-out-of-three, two-out-of-three and you’re right there, you’re right back in it. Every team still has a shot. It’s desperate times for all the teams that are in that group. Somebody’s going to start pulling away and there’s only one or two spots for a lot of teams.
“So we know the importance of the games.”
A rotten 48 hours and the Flames could well find their post-season hopes — already hanging by a thread — virtually extinguished.
“We have three segments left and I feel, at least, we need 27 points (which would drive them up to 53 on the 48-game condensed schedule),” reckoned Hartley. “That’s our math. Obviously there’s no guarantees for this, but at the same time it’s just to do it as a group. I like my team, I’ve said it many times, they’re great guys capable of doing many great things, but it’s the consisentcy, the ability to start a game on the right note and maintaining the intensity, the focus.
“Sometimes we get a bad wave and it’s costing us.”
Tonight, they collide with another team that is sick, too. The Nashville Predators shuffled home after a highly dispiriting road swing of their own, 1-4, in which they leaked an appalling 20 goals over the final four starts, including that 6-3 paddling absorbed March 15th at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Hartley can certainly empathize with the Preds’ plight. The unforgivable, lead-footed start to Monday’s 4-3 loss at American Airlines Arena in Denver was still rattling around in his mind 48 hours later.
“You look at the three goals we gave ...” Hartley sighed forlornly. “I hate to go back to (past) games, but when you spot a team three goals, freebies, you make it very tough on yourself.
“We addressed it again today. We’re going to do lots of work in our defensive zone coverage until the end of the year. I feel that’s our only chance. Learning to communicate, learning to trust your teammates. I think that we’re capable of doing many good things, but too many times we shoot ourselves in the foot with bad decisions or a bad read.
“And it’s costly at this level.”
Fatal, more like.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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Flames right winger Brian McGrattan, right, slams Nashville’s Rich Clune hard into the boards during the teams’ meeting at the Saddledome last week. Calgary won 6-3. The NHL squads will meet again on Thursday night in Nashville.
Photograph by: Colleen De Neve, Calgary Herald