Seven new faces in the lineup, same old story.
Seven power-play chances, same result every time.
People in B.C. and Alberta don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things these days, but several times late Wednesday night a collective groan could be heard across Western Canada.
Those on the left side of the Rockies, including a raucous bunch at Rogers Arena, moaned with every penalty call against the hometown Vancouver Canucks.
Those who took a break from digging out of the snow on the right side whined at exactly the same time, as it meant the Calgary Flames‘ anemic power play would once again spring into inaction.
Just like last year, when the Flames’ 28th-ranked power play aided their undoing in the Western Conference playoff race, a merry new band of special-teamers failed miserably in a 5-2 loss.
The only thing scarier on the night for Flames fans was seeing Travis Hamonic dropped by Erik Gudbranson in a first-period fight that ended with an upper cut some thought broke his jaw.
More on that in a bit.
As if the playbook for man-advantage situations was written in Mandarin, the Flames bunch that returned from China, suggesting they’d bonded brilliantly, clearly need some more cohesiveness.
“The power play is crucial — it wins and loses you games and for us there’s no excuse. We’ve practiced it enough and we should have been a little bit more crisp,” said James Neal of an 0-for-7 outing he was brought in as a free agent to try improving on.
“They did a good job on our entries — we were getting stuck on their line because we weren’t coming with enough speed. We were getting frustrated and sucking the energy out of us and it was deflating our bench a little bit. If we score one of those early, it’s a different game.”
On a night of sloppy play that looked for the longest time like a beauty roof job to open Elias Pettersson’s NHL career in the first period might be the difference, the Canucks turned their home opener into a fan festival when Nikolay Goldobin and Brendan Leipsic scored 28 seconds apart early in the third.
From there, the Flames, who looked like Keystone Cops in their first four power plays, trying to simply enter the Canucks’ zone with the dreaded neutral zone drop, got three more man-advantages.
A goal in any one of them could have closed the gap and given the Flames the momentum they craved, especially when it was narrowed to 3-1 early in the third.
Alas, even after figuring out their entries, they couldn’t capitalize on endless rebounds in tight.
It was, unquestionably, the difference in a game the Flames lost 5-2 thanks to an empty-netter.
One of the only pieces of good news following a lid-lifting loss to a team projected as the West’s worst was Hamonic’s return to the game late in the first, wearing a jaw protector attached to his helmet.
“I think it’s just a little swelled up — no worse for wear,” said Hamonic, who added he’d get it checked Thursday.
“Right at the end, he popped me. It happens. Big guy. Long reach.”
Hamonic lost the fight but gained even more respect from his teammates as he took on the 6-foot-5 defender for dumping Dillon Dube on the young Flame’s first NHL shift.
He said he’d had his jaw shattered in junior when he took a puck to the face, but wasn’t able to compare the feeling.
Might not have had much feeling, and certainly wasn’t keen on speaking to it in front of cameras after the game, politely declining.
Dube was solid all night — one of the Flames’ best — but had his ice time limited to under 10 minutes by the Canucks’ penalty-box parade that somehow benefitted the hosts.
Playing in front of his parents, his billets from Kelowna and his 81-year-old Grandpa Bob, Dube created several good scoring chances. The best was a partial breakaway of his own, set up by a long pass by fellow NHL newbie Juuso Valimaki, whose parents made the long flight from Finland just in time to see his debut.
“Their penalty kill did give then momentum,” said new Flames coach Bill Peters.
“Lack of execution on the power play — we didn’t come with a lot of speed. There’s lots to work on early in the year. At one point we were one-for-seven on the faceoff on the power — that’s an important part of the game.”
Peters said encouragement comes with the fact the Flames made a bit of a push in the third period, but Jacob Markstrom made 33 saves.
Mike Smith couldn’t be blamed for the Pettersson snipe but wasn’t thrilled with a 19-save effort.
“The power play struggled for sure, especially in the first and second,” said Flames newcomer Derek Ryan who played on a line with Neal and Dube.
“It took us a while to figure out how to get in the zone. I thought once we got in the zone (in the third period) we had some good chances. We were too stubborn to chip it in and get some zone time. We wanted to get off on the right foot — nobody in here likes losing.”
So, the Flames blew one of the few free spots on the bingo card with an opening night hiccup against a rebuilding Canucks team that scored just five even-strength goals in seven pre-season games.
It’s early, but they know they’ve got to be much better.
They really couldn’t be much worse.