Flames left with many questions after losing more than just game

Jamie Oleksiak's goal in the final minute of regulation got the Stars a win over the Flames, evening their series at 1-1.

EDMONTON – They lost the game, they lost Matthew Tkachuk, and for a considerable amount of time, it looked like they lost their confidence.

Yet somehow, the Calgary Flames never lost faith.

Despite yet another parade of punishment dished out by the Flames Thursday night, the Dallas Stars did well to push back on the ice and the scoreboard.

As expected.

Game on, as the series is now tied 1-1.

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In a game with more hits than Rod Carew, the Flames were reminded of the type of big boy hockey the Stars have relished for years.

For the first two periods the Flames dished it out and they took it, but it was Gang Green that managed to sustain plenty of offensive pressure on a younger Flames club that was back on its heels most of the evening.

Yet, despite falling behind 4-2 late in the second period, and having a third-period goal overturned in controversial fashion, the Flames somehow managed to tie it with three minutes left.

Their gutsy comeback was rendered moot in the final minute when defenceman Jamie Oleksiak finished a golden pass from Corey Perry that exposed broken coverage and gave the Stars a 5-4 win, with the winner coming with 40 seconds remaining.

A dagger for a Flames team that surely understood afterwards the better team won.

“We knew they would come out harder, and we had a lot of trouble the first two periods,” said Elias Lindholm, who was demoted to the third line in favour of a possessed Sam Bennett midway through. “We were sitting back a little too much and didn’t work enough to get open. We battled back and at the end it was tight and could have gone either way. Tomorrow we have to be ready from the beginning.”

The Flames took great solace from their ability to get right back at it Friday night with an eye on atoning for their first sub-par effort in four outings.

They may have to do so without the services of Tkachuk, who left the game on three occasions with injuries. The first came from a stick to the groin courtesy of Jamie Benn, and the knockout blow that ended his evening in the third period came when he was sandwiched by Benn and the towering Oleksiak.

There was a better chance of solving the Caramilk secret than getting late-night answers from coach Geoff Ward on Tkachuk’s status after he was seen wobbling following a final blow that likely initiated concussion testing.

“Chucky is a warrior — he battles hard for us game in and game out,” said Bennett, who was the game’s ultimate beast, with a tying goal, five shots and seven hits for a team limited to one scoring chance in the first and just a few in the second. “We’ll see what’s up with him, but he’s a tough kid and he brings a lot to our team. It was unfortunate he had to leave there.”

In their previous three games the Flames had answers to everything, by way of tight defence, punishing physicality and confidence that gave them tremendous momentum.

Now there are plenty of questions outside of Tkachuk’s status:

Where has the Flames first line gone?

Johnny Gaudreau celebrated his 27th birthday much the same way he has throughout these playoffs — on the perimeter. Never a scoring threat. Ditto Sean Monahan. In an effort to kickstart their line, Lindholm was shuffled, to no avail.

“I just felt like after the first period we really only had one line going,” said Ward of Bennett and Milan Lucic’s wrecking crew, which opened the game with a Dillon Dube goal past Ben Bishop 19 seconds in.

“Inject a little life. Sam’s line was going well so I injected Sam, Looch and Benny into different lines. As the second period went on it wasn’t as lopsided as the first period. For us what we’ve got to take away from it is we were able to claw our way back. For a young team playoff-wise, that’s an important thing to learn.”

Who starts in net Friday?

This wasn’t on Cam Talbot at all.

Yes, there was one weak goal by Miro Heiskanen that he’d like to have back, but more than a handful of his 31 saves were beauties that, quite frankly, kept things from getting ugly. Yet, in a series with the first four games scheduled over five-and-a-half days, Ward said from the outset there would be the possibility of having to play two netminders.

Is now the time to introduce David Rittich to his first NHL playoff action, with the team reeling from an emotional setback?

Don’t expect an answer until shortly before the 8:30 pm MT puck drop Friday.

Can the Flames bounce back and elevate to the level the Stars were at Game 2?

It remains to be seen how the group deals with the physical toll the schedule may start to take, as well as the mental toll of really having the Stars take it to them for the first 40 minutes.

After a lacklustre series debut, Benn and Tyler Seguin started baring their teeth in a gritty game the Stars needed to win. Struggling to score through the round robin and most of the season, the Stars’ offensive explosion of sorts had to be concerning for a Flames team that made its last three games look easy with stifling defence and newfound moxie they vowed to show after last year’s playoff flop.

The Flames vowed to take the positives out of the setback, which included the late comeback and the fact they weren’t flustered by the situation room’s decision to call back Andrew Mangiapane’s goal five minutes into the third while down 4-2. Mangiapane’s skate knocked the puck in as he fell to the ice, prompting video review officials to deem it a kicking motion few Flames fans would agree with.

A shorthanded goal by Tobias Rieder with eight minutes left set up Bennett’s dramatic power play redirect with three minutes left to tie it.

Enter Oleksiak, and newfound doubt.

“They came out hard but the important thing for us is we were finally able to get our legs under us and come back and make it a game,” said Ward, whose club has lost 11-straight Game 2’s, dating back to 2004.

“That’s what it’s all about this time of year — it’s about managing your moments. It’s not always about playing a good hand well, sometimes you have to play a bad one. You put it in the rearview.”

We’ll find out Friday if that’s easier said than done.

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