The 0-2 Flames come into the Bell Centre to provide the opposition for the Canadiens’ home opener on Thursday and, as you’d expect, there are some uneasy feelings around the team. They’ve surrendered five goals in each game and their work ethic hasn’t been exemplary. They seem to be on the heels too often, unable to control the puck and unable to get it back.
“I don’t know what to say, honestly,” ex-Hab Alex Tanguay muttered after Calgary’s 5-2 loss in St. Louis Monday afternoon . “We’ve played two terrible games to start the season. Both of them were absolutely — as you guys saw — terrible. This is not who we are.”
What they are through two games is, according to The Calgary Herald’s Vicki Hall, is too slow. too charitable (in terms of giveaways) and too sluggish. And she wonders if they’re also too old.
The Flames had an admirable second half last season, but still missed the playoffs following a brutal start. They got hot in late December, right after Darryl Sutter was replaced as GM by Jay Feaster. You wouldn’t think a GM’s departure would spark a club — that happens when a team changes coaches. But brother Brent stayed behind the bench and observers believed Darryl’s absence removed a meddling influence from the scene. When the Habs faced Calgary in the Heritage Classic last February, the Flames were among the hottest teams in the league, and played like it in the their 4-0 whitewash of Montreal.
Feaster made few major changes over the offseason, the most noteworthy was dispatching stalwart defenceman Robin Regehr to the Sabres, one of a few moves designed to free up cap space. They still have some talented players, but somehow don’t seem as strong as they did last February. Part of that is because captain Jarome Iginla is not yet up to speed, having missed most of training camp with a bad back. Iggy did score against the Blues on Monday, a power play goal on a rebound in front of the net, but he generally looked rusty and subpar.
So did his team. They couldn’t capitalize on their chances early against a shaky Jaroslav Halak and by the middle of the second period, St. Louis had found its game. At one point, they kept the puck in the Flames zone for a minute an a half, throwing it around as if they were the only team on the ice, Calgary never touching it other than saves by backup goalie Henrik Karlsson. Trailing 3-2 going into the third, the Flames couldn’t solve a strong Blues forecheck, managing only two shots.
“We got out-competed and out-worked,” Iginla admitted after the game. “It’s more than being 0-2. We need to find our game and find our work ethic.”
They’ll try to find it in Montreal.
Despite their start, Calgary is no pushover. In addition to Iginla and Tanguay, who has an assist in each game so far, they still have the dangerous Olli Jokenin, the underrated Rene Bourque and two good talents, Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordono, on D.
They may be weakest down the middle where, after Jokinen, they are thin due to injury. Young Mikael Backlund was set to move in as the top centre between Iginla and Tanguay, but he suffered a broken finger toward he end of preseason, slashed by an unnamed teammate in practice. Thirty-six year old Brendan Morrison, who has had good chemistry with Iginla in the past despite his advancing years, is also out of the lineup, not yet ready after offseason knee surgery. In their place, Sutter has shifted David Moss from right wing and employed Roman Horak, a 20-year-old rookie the Flames acquired from the Rangers in June for Tim Erixon. Matt Stajan also centres a line.
The defence has also been reconfigured with the departure of Regehr. Bouwmeester and Giordano (one of the game’s best kept secrets) are augmented by rugged Corey Sarich, Scott Hannan, Chris Butler, Anton Babchuk and Derek Smith. As a group so far, they haven’t been great. “The defenceman are hardly the only culprits in this caper,” Hall wrote in The Herald. “The forwards keep turning the puck over. Then they don’t get back to help.”
Mikka Kiprusoff is still one of the game’s best in goal, an acrobatic marvel who never gives up on a shot and never seems to wilt or worry. He can steal a game on his own — and frequently has — regardless of how well or poorly his team plays in front of him.
Here’s how the Flames should line up Thursday:
Alex Tanguay-David Moss-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Lee Stempniak
Tim Jackman-Roman Horak-Rene Bourque
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Tom Kostopoulos
Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
Scott Hannan-Mark Giordano
Corey Sarich-Anton Babchuk/Derek Smith