CALGARY – The players can’t put their fingers on it, neither can the fans.
Three games in the row the Calgary Flames pieced together impressive first periods, only to give it all away one period later.
The fact is, a big part of the answer is right there in technicolor.
For the second time in three outings, an egregious video challenge by interim coach Geoff Ward contributed significantly to the opposition’s second-period surge.
On Saturday, he challenged a Carolina Hurricanes goal that opened the scoring and led to a delay of game penalty that the visitors scored mere seconds after it expired.
On Thursday night, Ward made a similar mistake seconds after the Montreal Canadiens closed the gap 2-1 midway through the night. Just before Joel Armia’s goal ignited a raucous gathering of Habs fans at the Dome, Artturi Lehkonen received a pass while backing into the Flames zone.
He clearly had control of the puck, which means it’s permissible to skate into the zone ahead of the puck.
In a league that’s not in the business of waving off goals without conclusive evidence the call was missed, it would have taken a Christmas miracle to overturn this one.
In real-time, and in slow-motion, it’s hard to fathom how the Flames chose to challenge, especially as quickly as they did.
“Our video guy (Jamie Pringle) felt (Lehkonen) was in fully before the puck and (the league) said he had possession before he crossed the line,” explained Ward after a brilliantly entertaining 4-3 overtime loss to the surging Canadiens.
“On the missed offside challenge they were able to generate four or five great chances (on the ensuing powerplay), which gave them more momentum. Tonight we felt we were good. They generated a lot of momentum off that first goal and we just kind of mentally went, ‘uh-oh’ on the bench. We got back on our heels after that first goal. I thought the power play for them was a real big momentum shifter for them.”
It’s momentum they had no sign of possessing minutes earlier, helping explain how a 2-0 first period lead for the Flames turned into a 2-2 track meet with seven minutes left in the second.
It set the table for the most enjoyable fan experience at the Dome this season, as both teams traded endless chances before Oliver Kylington’s first of the year put the hosts up six minutes into the third.
Five minutes later Nick Suzuki’s redirection set up an overtime that easily could have been won by either team, given the golden opportunities both created.
Elias Lindholm had perhaps the best chance late in the extra frame when he was denied in alone by Carey Price, who used his stick to stop a shot aimed five-hole in tight.
Max Domi scooped up the rebound, skated up the ice, across the Flames blue line, and ripped a slapshot far side under David Rittich’s old-school brown glove, worn to match the Flames’ retro white jerseys.
“Obviously, I could have been the hero, and then it went the other way and they scored, so that was kind of tough,” said Lindholm, who broke out of a lengthy slump on a power-play goal with eight seconds left in the first.
“It was more an instinct. Obviously now, looking back, I could have taken it on my backhand, but it is what it is. New day tomorrow.”
Montreal’s annual visit set the stage for brilliant theatre, created first by a festive crowd in two-tone red, and built upon by two speedy clubs that combined for 70 shots and plenty of emotion.
Matthew Tkachuk spoke eloquently during the intermission about how much it meant to the players to have Lanny McDonald rev up the lads in the dressing room by announcing the starting lineup.
Calgary’s Hall of Fame icon then stood on the bench for warmup as the players darted around in their classic whites in anticipation of a matchup with the legendary franchise the city has relished since meeting in the 1986 and 1989 Stanley Cup finals.
Rittich wore his retro brown pads for the occasion.
With fans on both sides battling from the get-go to drown out the others’ cheers, the Flames responded accordingly with another first-period surge.
The stage was set for a classic that fell one goal short for the locals’ liking.
Scoring on the visitors’ 43rd shot of the night, the Canadiens issued the Flames their third straight loss.
“Like the last couple games, a couple goals in a couple minute span and they had the momentum the rest of the second period,” said Tkachuk, who had a goal, a sensational assist and a between-the-legs chance that might have blown the roof off the joint had it beaten Price.
“We’ve got to play better with the lead right now. We’re not satisfied with the point. We were up 2-0 at one point and 3-2 with ten minutes left. The best teams find a way to win those in regulation. We did a good job with that a couple weeks ago and we’ve got to get back to that.”
Make no mistake, Ward has been a breath of fresh air for the team, the franchise and the league with his respectful, empowering approach.
The longtime assistant has played a significant role in a turnaround that recently saw the Flames win seven in a row.
However, there were bound to be lessons learned on the job.
He’s ultimately in charge of the two bad challenges that contributed to recent losses.
But as Lindholm insisted, tomorrow is another day.