Johnson: Flames’ beauty marks evident, but so was the expected acne
Both sides of Calgary’s work-in-progress club on display in opening day loss to San Jose
From their wildest dreams realized, however briefly, to their worst fears come to pass.
One period, to the next.
From one up, to two down. From a 16-9 shot advantage to a 14-4 deficit. Just like ... that. As if they’d spent the first intermission swapping jerseys. Like a Charles Atlas ad in reverse. With the flex-those-pecs ‘after’ part first, the sand-kicked-in-face ‘before’ second.
“We did exactly what we wanted in the opening period,” sighed defenceman Cory Sarich. “Exactly. We had them on their heels. We were skating. They were making all the turnovers in their own end. Then in the second, for whatever reason, we started paying them a little too much respect and gave them too much time.
“And it turned. You could feel it.
“We weren’t as effective getting out of our own end and it just kind of snowballed from there. We’ve got to find a way to right the ship a little quicker if things aren’t going our way. Instead, we just kept compounding our mistakes and that can’t happen.
“The game was right there if we stick with it for the full 60.”
So the wait is over. Hockey is officially back, in all its glory and maddening imperfections. From the warm reception the Calgary Flames received skating onto the Scotibank Saddldome ice late Sunday afternoon, the blight of the past four months has somehow been conveniently forgiven and forgotten.
And this reimagined, re-tooled, re- edition delivered, oddly enough, on both what their champions had hoped and their detractors had predicted.
The beauty marks were there for all to see. So, however, was the acne.
Over the opening 20 minutes, the Flames implemented boss Bob Hartley’s boisterous, bustling blueprint to perfection. Relentless on the puck. Using their legs. Getting pucks deep and then, in pack mentality, boring in on the forecheck like a group of red army ants on the march.
They had the lead, via Stempniak. Had badly outplayed and outchanced the interlopers from San Jose. The Baertschi-Backlund collaboration was making music sweet enough to make the Gershwins, George and Ira, pea green with envy.
Somehow, it all seemed too good to last.
And, sure enough, it was.
Throughout the second, though, their fatal lack of size and physicality seemed all too apparent, as the earlier lack of finish around the net was cruelly exposed. Where they couldn’t thrust the dagger into the heart of the Sharks at their most vulnerable, San Jose’s top dogs — Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau — displayed no such compunction in putting the Flames to the sword.
“This a game of momentum We had it and lost it,” sighed left winger Alex Tanguay. “It’s 1-1 at the time, I’ve got a breakaway and the puck jumps over my stick. Then they come back down and score on us. After that ...
“We were really, really good in the third, too.
“But we totally, totally dominated that first period. We hit two posts. Had a number of great chances. We could’ve won the game in that period alone.”
Yes, they could’ve. But vitally for the visitors, Antti refused to cry “Uncle!”
Antti Niemi was nothing short of stellar. Stempniak, belying his size, was thwarted on a fine power-move to the net. Sven Baertschi slid a lovely pass through to an unattended Mikael Backlund for a gilt-edged chance. The ever-industrious Steve Begin, short-handed, chipped a breakaway try off Niemi and then onto the crossbar.
Set up beautifully by Backlund, Baertschi, with all the time in the world, picked his spot, only to miss by an inch or so, the puck pinging off a post. Backlund, not to be bullied, barrelled between Ryane Clowe and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, only to have Niemi flick his left pad nimbly at the shot.
Out of all that industry, though, only the slenderest of leads.
“Obviously he made some big stops,” said Mark Giordano. “But everything seemed to switch after their power play goal.”
The Sharks had been circling. And after that goal, they could smell blood in the water. Using his justly famous 747 wingspan, Thornton, fleeced Giordano, of all people, of the puck behind the Calgary net and skimmed one of those patented lighter-than-air passes out front for Marleau to take wide and tuck in at 13:52.
Slightly over a minute later, Miikka Kiprusoff can’t tuck away a Vlasic point shot through traffic and Martin Havlat is johnny on the spot to tidy up. Then that man Marleau, ever lurking, every opportunistic, converts another dish of leftovers at 18:10.
“Niemi played great, we hit a post early on ... those are things that contributed,” agreed Stempniak. “But for us, we stopped skating and things kind of fell apart. That’s the issue.
“We had a lot of energy, came out and pushed the pace, were able to read off each other and jump on loose pucks. We sort of got away from that in the second and you could see we played a lot in our end. It felt like we were retreating the whole time.
“We’ve got to do a better job, if you make a mistake, turn a puck over, take a penalty, anything like that, we’ve got to be a mature team, a veteran team and realize you’ve gotta bounce back. You can’t let things snowball personally and as a team. If things don’t go your way it does no good to sulk or fret over it, you’ve got to put it aside, move on to your next shift and worry about what you can control.”
Sunday is gone. There’s no retrieving it. In this frantic dash to 48, the only thing that matters is the next item on the menu.
That’d be tonight, against Selanne, Getzlaf, Perry and the Anaheim Ducks, 7-3 defilers of the mighty Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
“Consistency,” said Tanguay, “has been an issue for this team. Something Bob has been preaching since the start of camp. We did that for two out of three periods. That certainly gives us hope but we need points. We’re right back at it (tonight).
“No time to feel sorry for ourselves.”
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald