Flames squander chance to keep pace in Pacific with humiliating loss

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both scored a goal and added two assists as the Chicago Blackhawks pounded the Calgary Flames.

CALGARY – The Calgary Flames finally lead the league in something, and it only took them 30 seconds to do so Saturday.

For the ninth time this season, the Flames allowed the first shot on goal to go in.

A Jonathan Toews snipe past David Rittich half a minute into their Hockey Night in Canada matchup catapulted the Flames ahead of Arizona and Toronto for honours as the league’s worst team out of the blocks.

And although the first of Sam Bennett’s two goals on the night tied it 97 seconds later, the Flames inability to triumph after early setbacks continues.

An 8-4 humiliation at home to the 25th-place Blackhawks gives the Flames an 8-19-3 record after surrendering the first goal.

“It’s a concern for sure – it’s way too many times,” said interim coach Geoff Ward of his team’s first-shot follies.

“We’ve got to be more dialled in there. That’s a lot of time to be giving up first shot goals. We’ve got to fix it. Saying that, the truth about competition is it brings out worst in you or it brings out the best in you. Tonight it brought out our worst.”

No, as Ward alluded to, this isn’t all on his goalies, who have actually been one of the team’s biggest strengths this year.

Yes, Rittich has allowed the first shot in a whopping six times, Cam Talbot three. Unacceptable.

But this latest face plant was about compete levels, being ready for battle and providing a much more stable mental approach to games they can’t seem to win at home these days.

This team has not won at the Dome since Jan. 11.

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The Flames have gone 0-4-1 in that stretch, erasing the momentum of last week’s chest-puffing road trip through the west that saw them go 3-1 to stay in the thick of the NHL’s closest divisional race.

One step forward and one step back for a team that saw every other team in the division win Saturday, leaving Calgary clinging to the final wild card spot.

“It’s concerning obviously – we’ve got to start winning some home games,” added Ward of his team’s pedestrian 13-11-4 Dome record.

“One thing I know for sure is if you’re not playing at the same intensity level as your opposition – if your compete level is not where it needs to be – it’s an awful tough league to play in. I don’t think right now at home we need to look any further than that. Let’s start there and then we can move on.”

Twice in the last two weeks the team has given up an eight-spot, and twice in that time the coach has questioned his team’s mettle.

It’s a theme this year for a team that is known as much for its inconsistency than anything else.

On Saturday, giveaways — another nagging problem for the club all season — played the biggest role in the Flames’ latest humiliation.

On three separate occasions the Flames lost battles behind their own net, leading to net-front conversions by Dominik Kubalik, Alex Nylander and Alex DeBrincat.

Mental mistakes led to two other goals as a Michael Stone pinch in the opening minute led to Toews’ goal, followed early in the second by a Dillon Dube pass picked off by Nylander — who made no mistake to chase Rittich from the game with the score 4-2.

The coach said Rittich was left out to dry on “several” goals, and simply wanted to try jolting his team awake.

The team responded with Elias Lindholm’s first of two on the night, to get the Flames within a goal at 4-3 midway through.

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After failing to convert on a power play that could have tied the game, the Flames coughed up two goals from behind their net to put the game out of reach.

“We just came off a huge road trip for our team – it’s frustrating, for whatever reason, we’re not getting the wins we should at home,” said Bennett.

“That was not a pretty performance. I think everybody knows it. We’ve got to learn from it.”

Bennett, who missed two games last week with the flu, made a rare start at centre due to the absence of Derek Ryan — who now has the flu, too. Bennett whacked in a brilliance pass from Dube two minutes into the game to tie it 1-1.

Kubalik and Bennett traded goals before the end of the period, with Bennett’s second coming on a perfectly finished breakaway that came courtesy of a Dube pass from mid-air sure to be replayed all season.

Lindholm tied his career-high of 27 goals with his second of the game late in the third, to no avail. The Swede has five goals in his last three outings to extend his point streak to ten games.

No one will be talking about that Sunday, as the Flames squandered yet another opportunity to keep pace in the air-tight Pacific division.

Patrick Kane’s empty-netter and Kirby Dach’s eighth did well to scatter a good portion of the crowd that chose not to partake in the boos that punctuated one of the team’s worst efforts of the season.

The Flames host Anaheim Sunday in a rare matinee slated for 2 p.m.

Locals can be forgiven for starting pools as to how soon thereafter the visitors will start celebrating.

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