Avalanche-Flames: Colorado Apt Test for Calgary Flames, "Good" Not Good Enough
The Calgary Flames attempted to rub out the competition Wednesday night at the Saddledome. Star scorers Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen looked to ease criticism of top-line scoring as each nabbed a marker within 1:10 of the opening faceoff. Instead, the Flames dropped the lead, losing their first game against the Colorado Avalanche, 3-2.
When the Western Conference-leading Colorado Avalanche arrived at the Saddledome Wednesday night, they presented the a unique challenge to a talented Calgary Flames team plagued by bad habits.
The result? A two-goal lead—and three-game Calgary winning streak—sacrificed in favour of Colorado’s extraordinary season start in a 3-2 loss for the home side.
The Flames carved a franchise at-home record for fastest two goals to start a game with a pair of markers in the first 70 seconds. Yet despite Calgary giving up another early lead and the Avs firmly earning their two points, it was a tricky tilt to grade.
The Avalanche came into the season as a flat-out non-contender, bravely tackling the year with a seemingly-depleted roster and the gaping vacancy left by legendary leader Joe Sakic’s retirement. The Flames looked forward, confidence boosted by offseason tweaks and upgrades, primed and predicted to challenge some of the best.
Despite a punishing amount of road time to start 2009-10, Colorado has taken the league by storm and surprise, already shooting down expected high-flyers such as San Jose, Vancouver, Boston, Detroit—and Calgary.
On the other side, the Flames have done about as well as expected: posting a winning record, revealing flashes of brilliance, but shadowed by lingering bad habits.
With all their on-paper prowess and undisputed ability, the Calgary Flames have only to unburden themselves of nagging negative patterns—blown leads, inconsistent efforts, poor penalty kills, unpredictable struggles against lesser opponents or important rivals—to sustain themselves among the best in the league.
Facing the obviously well-oiled Avalanche promised to be a worthy test of Flames discipline and skill: not only are the Avs a franchise on a meteoric rise holding one of the most elite-looking records in the NHL, they're also an underdog division foe Calgary was in danger of underestimating.
Well, the Flames did give up a multi-goal lead. They did go on to lose, to a Northwest rival, no less. They did succumb to some of their weaknesses. But for once, in spite of appearances, that wasn’t the whole story.
This was a contest of contradictions. On the scoreboard, Colorado had the momentum after 20 minutes with two unanswered goals to knot the game; on the score sheet, however, the statistics were decidedly tilted in Calgary’s favour.
Both sides boasted a perfect penalty kill, had an equal number of takeaways, and the Avs blocked only six shots more than the homers; otherwise, every column came up Calgary.
After poking two quick holes through Craig Anderson, currently one of the best goalies in the league, the Flames looked to physically pressure Colorado into folding—in a rare fightless Flames match, the team instead went to work with 20 registered hits.
Showing disciplined physicality, Calgary played the body but took just two minor penalties through 60 minutes.
Continuing to threaten offensively throughout the game, team passing looked clean and set-ups cycled well. Miles ahead in shots, Calgary shredded the biscuit a total of 67 times—32 on net, 19 blocked, and another 16 whizzing wide—however, the disc only made it through twice.
The Flames were impressive in giving up their fewest shots on goal this season by far, allowing only 14 pucks to get at the net—good for their shots-against numbers and defensive rating, bad for goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, whose GAA progressively suffers, having made only 11 saves on the night.
The team’s skaters blocked a solid 13 shots, cutting potential Colorado chances in half with steady defensive work, particularly on the PK, which was able to stop the competition from putting plays together with the man-advantage.
Individual Flames seemed on track as the educated eyes of Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman watched from above. Headliners Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen notched Calgary’s goals, Rene Bourque showed a lot of zest, and Robyn Regehr lengthened his four-game point streak while recording a plus-1 on the evening.
Sounds like a lot of positive for a 3-2 loss. It is. Obviously, it’s what the Flames didn’t accomplish which set the tone.
Wednesday night’s game against Colorado was a unique opportunity for the Flames to prove themselves on many levels. Battling the unquestionable momentum of a now-key Northwest rival, they had a chance to display their well-paid, highly-rated talent and stake a symbolic claim on the division with a win.
Calgary was also presented with an immediate chance to address at least one of the team's niggling concerns—giving up easy, early leads.
Though managing a sturdy effort through most of the game, including numerous scoring chances and solid pressure, there were times when the presumably well-rested home team looked less enthusiastic than the ostensibly road-weary visitors.
The rocketing Calgary hit totals died away after 40 minutes, and there were instances when Flames skaters had the option to take play hard into the corners, but veered off.
Despite the inflated shot totals the team managed to accumulate, openings for others were not taken; at the opposite end of the rink, there were at least two occasions where the defending side were frozen in their tracks by the footwork of sleek-skating Avs.
The Avalanche ought not be slighted credit in their fourth consecutive win, as the Flames have now seen first-hand the elements which have helped Colorado to the top in October.
Outside Anderson’s panic-free actions in net and Wojtek Wolski’s speedy, skilful verve, it was not an overly-flashy performance by the visitors, but patiently effective.
After giving up two goals on three shots and head coach Joe Sacco's time-out, the Avs remained calm as they worked to knot up the score.
Lesser-known players were given confidence-building roles in key situations, lending balance to a seemingly thin-picked roster.
Add an underestimated rushing defense, steady determination, and a dash of luck, the crew from Denver have earned their enviable 10-1-2 mark thus far.
A dicey game to grade, it was a tough contest for all involved. The Flames weren’t completely outstripped in this contest, as they have been in past lose-the-lead defeats.
Pervasive issues of inconsistency and perceived lack of control have seemed difficult to overcome for this team, clouded by a heavy sense of inevitability come game-time—Calgary has either seemed like an elite, unstoppable squad destined for the win or a rattled group of unfamiliar amateurs scrambling to keep up with NHL competition.
There are still distinct signs of the negative patterns dogging Flames, but Calgary’s first tilt against the Avalanche of 2009-10 showed improvement by avoiding another wild downward spiral.
However, considering the ground which could have been gained on multiple fronts, this is more than just a disappointing outcome. No matter how much the Flames tried or how competently the Avalanche earned their victory, it's not good enough.
With a well-fought, well-deserved win against Colorado, Calgary would have made an important statement—looking forward to the next test, the team will at least gain something from this improved version of failure.
Through the contest, the Flames looked like the better team on paper and on the ice—hard to call that a “bad” game.
In the end, they lost, having given up an early two-goal lead at home—tough to call that a “good” game.
It’s still difficult to accept this as a “good loss”, despite evidence to that effect. Criticism of top line scoring seemed dispelled with Iginla and Jokinen’s record-fast tallies, but with the team again faltering after a rapid show of dominance and huge advantage in shots, the critics will return.
The Flames are going to be upset and frustrated by this 3-2 defeat, but will also use it as a learning experience to benefit from moving forward. Simple lack of out-and-out embarrassment cannot be considered an accomplishment for a club like Calgary, and they know it.
The team now gears up for Colorado’s mirror opposite, as the underachieving Detroit Red Wings, 2009's Western Conference Champion, visit Saturday to finish out the Flames’ five-game homestand.
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