TAMPA, Fla. – It’s the s-word Calgary Flames fans are worried might be uttered following the prolonged all-star break.
The same word that ruined last year’s season around the very same time:
The Flames are on one, and the captain was the first to point it out following a hollow outing in Tampa Tuesday that left the visitors on the short end of a 6-3 score.
“We feel like we’re sliding,” said Mark Giordano of a once-surging squad that has lost four of five since the break.
“We haven’t been getting the points we were getting at the start of the year and we’ve got to stop it right now.
“Our details were nowhere near where they need to be. I feel we’ve let that slip here a little bit in the last few.
“We’ll be ready Thursday (in nearby Sunrise, Fla.). We’ll be a way more focused group. And we have to really pull out of this.”
Focus sure seemed to be an issue midway through the first period when the Flames allowed the hosts to strike three times in a six-minute window. Unstoppable one-timers by Brayden Point and Cedric Paquette were followed by a seeing-eye point shot by league scoring king Nikita Kucherov on a night David Rittich was too often hung out to dry.
None of those were his fault.
Calgary didn’t just roll over, though. Giordano, 35, scored a power-play goal late in the first that made him the 10th defenceman in NHL history to have 55 or more points at age 35 or older. Sean Monahan’s first of two goals brought the Flames within one midway through the game before the only questionable goal on Rittich squibbed through him to put the hosts up by two.
From there the league’s fastest and most potent team never gave the Flames a chance to claw back, limiting them to just 22 shots all night.
“We haven’t been as good with the details of the game probably since the all-star game,” agreed coach Bill Peters, whose club is 1-3-1 since the break, losing three in a row for the first time since Dec. 22.
“Tonight we found a way to get in our own way and make it very hard. There’ll be some line adjustments moving forward for the Florida game.”
It was exactly one year ago the Flames started the slide that cost them a playoff spot.
Mike Smith had twisted awkwardly in the dying seconds of a win in Brooklyn, leaving the all-star out for a month and Flames fans wondering if a Czech rookie like Rittich could carry the load.
He couldn’t, giving him an experience he vowed he’d learn from.
Fast-forward a year, and while the Flames’ standing has improved dramatically, the question still remains: can “Big Save Dave” carry this team across the finish line?
More importantly, can he maintain his first-half brilliance when it matters most: in the playoffs?
Tuesday night in Tampa against the league’s juggernaut hardly seems like a fair test, but since the Flames saw this game as a measuring stick, we’ll be frank: this wasn’t his fault.
A lopsided loss to the Bolts at a surprisingly spry Amalie Arena sure sounds on the outset like an indictment on Dave, especially since he only faced 27 shots.
Truth be told, he could only be questioned on one – maybe two – of the Lightning strikes as it was the group in front of him that played far too loose for Peters’ liking.
It has been a trend of late in Calgary. A tendency Rittich had long been able to bail his club out of as he’s posted a 20-5-5 record.
On this night it was impossible as the hosts used the magical passing of Kucherov (four points) to convert one-timer after one-timer past Rittich.
You can bet the coaches considered replacing him with Smith in the third, allowing the veteran to warm up for Thursday’s tilt.
Instead, Rittich gutted it out, as he had so many times before during a run of 13 straight decisions without a regulation loss, which ended Tuesday.
“We have to do the job collectively – all five guys in front,” said Travis Hamonic, well aware his team can’t fold down the stretch as it did a year ago.
“Ritter has played great all season. He’s a heck of a person and a heck of a goalie. We certainly didn’t play well in front of him at all. That’s a great team, but we weren’t near good enough.”
Everyone knew the Flames team that entered the break winning 17 of 18 points couldn’t possibly maintain its pace.
Alas, for the first time since New Year’s Eve they woke up Tuesday morning second to surging San Jose in the West.
Disturbing but manageable signs.
“We know what kind of team we can be and at this time of the year it’s the details and small areas of the game that are slipping away right now,” said Monahan.
“You can’t panic. We’re still in a good spot here, but we want to keep climbing. We’ve got to get back on track in Florida.”