NEW YORK – To the casual observer it may have looked like the Calgary Flames once again had trouble finishing off their opponents Friday night.
Indeed, for the third time in six games the club surrendered a third-period lead to walk away empty-handed.
However, the way Glen Gulutzan and his crew saw it, their fate was sealed much earlier in a 4-3 loss to the host Rangers.
“From the start of the game we didn’t deserve to win – it’s as simple as that,” said Matthew Tkachuk, whose frustration was mirrored by his coach’s anger. “For us to be up 3-2 after two was kind of a miracle.
“It caught up with us in the third. We got what we deserved tonight. It’s frustrating because we had the lead and Smitty (goalie Mike Smith) was playing out of his mind again. We just hoped to give him one period in the third, and we didn’t.”
One night earlier, Gulutzan criticized his club’s third period in a 3-2 win it barely held on to in New Jersey.
It’s becoming a bit of a theme, to be sure.
On this night, a steamed Gulutzan pointed to a litany of failures leading to Calgary’s demise, and wasted no time saying so.
“Just the way we played and the way we approached the game,” said Gulutzan when asked what frustrated him the most in a game that saw his team outshot 20-8 in the first period thanks to three penalties.
“I thought we were terrible in the first. We took way too many penalties. Took a dumb penalty in the third with eight minutes left and they capitalized. We took five (penalties). If you’re short-handed five times on a back-to-back, you’re probably not coming out of there in a good place. We got what we deserved. We weren’t ready to play.”
The costly penalty he referred to in the third was Sam Bennett’s holding infraction, setting up Mika Zibanejad’s game-winner with seven minutes left. It was the second power-play goal of the night for the Blueshirts, drawing attention to the special-teams problems the Flames have had most of the season.
“We had one power-play goal tonight but I think we can generate some more,” Gulutzan said of a unit that went one 1-for-6, including two failed attempts in the third. “The penalty kill can’t give up two. You’re not going to win giving up two power-play goals in an opposition’s building in a back-to-back. We outshot them (38-36).
“The chances weren’t that high. But I thought the chances that they had were quality. I thought ours were … they had two breakaways at the end of a power play. We had no game awareness that guys were coming out of the box. We had it pretty close in chances after two periods, but their looks were better.”
The disappointment in the Flames room was magnified by the fact three of the club’s unsung players got significant firsts – Brett Kulak’s first NHL goal in 74 games, Curtis Lazar’s first goal of the season and Ryan Lomberg’s first NHL point.
Lazar and Lomberg’s fourth line not only scored twice but drew three penalties, setting the stage for the stars, who came up short.
“You start off really happy for them – they deserved to get some credit today because a lot of the things they do go unnoticed,” said Tkachuk, who had the Flames’ lone power-play goal late in the second to give them an improbable 3-2 lead.
“It stings being a guy who takes pride in our power play. We were, what, 1-for-5 and go 6-on-4 (at the end) tonight and we had our chances, but you can only say we had our chances for so long. We’ve got to start burying them and bearing down. We’ve got to get our power play going to start winning some games.”
Give the Rangers credit – one day after management wrote their season off with announced plans to dismantle the bunch, the hosts came out fast. A first-period injury to starter Ondrej Pavelec saw Henrik Lundqvist come in for the second and become one of the stars with several third-period saves to preserve the win.
He made a sprawling save on Sean Monahan with six minutes left before prompting chants of his name with a late glove save on Mikael Backlund, whose conversion of a 2-on-1 pass from Michael Frolik seemed destined to tie things up.
“I think the first period really set the tone for this game,” said Lundqvist when asked about his team’s response to the GM’s liquidation-sale promise.
“No matter what’s going on you have to continue to battle here and it’s really strange that we are so close to being in (the playoffs) even though it feels like we’ve been losing forever.”
The Flames loss was their first in four games, setting up a day off in Manhattan Saturday, followed by a game in Brooklyn where Travis Hamonic will return for the first time after playing seven seasons for the Islanders.
“It will be weird,” said Hamonic.
Not nearly as weird as the Flames’ inconsistency, plaguing their chances at staying in a playoff spot.