Flames chasing wrong side of history with dubious Opening Night streak

Kevin Michie chats with Ryan Leslie to preview the season for the Calgary Flames which sees some forwards entering a crucial year.

The last time the Calgary Flames got off to a good start, Matthew Tkachuk was playing peewee hockey in St. Louis.

His father, Keith, was still an NHLer.

So was Miikka Kiprusoff, who outdueled Roberto Luongo for the Flames’ last opening night win, sealed by a Brandon Prust winner, a Dion Phaneuf empty-netter and a 29-minute effort from Jay Bouwmeester.

The year was 2009.

The club has since embarked on a dubious run of 11-straight opening night losses, shattering the previous NHL record of seven held by the Minnesota North Stars and Buffalo Sabres.

It is the longest active streak in the four major sports, three ahead of the Indianapolis Colts.

In fact, it’s just two opening losses away from the all-time record shared by the Memphis Grizzlies (2001-2013) and the Cleveland Browns (2005-2017). Chasing the wrong side of sports history.

But then, chasing is what has largely defined the Calgary Flames of late. Pinning more than a decade of season-opening humiliation on the current bunch is hardly fair, but this core group is chiefly responsible for a troubling trend of poor starts that have had the Flames on their heels to not only open games, but to open the first couple weeks of the season.

Case in point, when asked about the team’s slow starts, Noah Hanifin sought clarification on whether the question was about games or seasons. Both have been a problem, to say the least.

“I can’t remember once since I’ve been here we’ve had a good start and put us in a good spot the first 10 or 15 games,” said Tkachuk, who arrived in 2016.

“Even the year we ended up winning the west (2018-19) we were .500 (ten) games in.”

Johnny Gaudreau doubled down, pointing out he hadn’t witnessed a solid start in his seven years in Calgary.

“I don’t know why,” said Gaudreau, whose club is seven opening night losses ahead of second place Arizona.

“We’ve been through a few different coaches, so it’s not that. Maybe we’ve just got to bear down and realize how important those first ten games are to get off to a good start and make sure you’re feeling good. In the past we haven’t done that. It would be great for our team to finally do that and get a good start instead of trying to catch up.”

Over the last decade, the Flames have never had more than five wins in their first ten games.

Not once.

It continually sets them up for an exhausting chase the rest of the season, made tougher by the good ol’ loser point.

All of which brings us to Rogers Place Saturday night, where the Flames will try to snap their historic string against its opening night kryptonite.

The Flames started the 11-game slide in 2010 with a 4-0 loss in Edmonton, which was one of three opening night setbacks in the string that have seen them outscored 14-4 by their provincial punch buddies.

“That’s gonna be a huge game and then we’ll go on a long road trip – something we haven’t done in over a year, going to the U.S. and playing on a long road trip,” said Noah Hanifin. “We can’t focus on the past. It’s a new year. We’ve got to be prepared.”

The roadie is a five-gamer out east that follows Monday’s home-opener against the Ducks. Not ideal.

“The schedule really isn’t in our favour really – we’ve got a lot against us,” said Tkachuk. “But we have to be playing playoff hockey in the regular season. I know that first game in Edmonton they aren’t going to be easing into it up there.”

The Flames haven’t played since Friday’s final exhibition game, while the Oilers got their feet wet with a season-opening win Wednesday. You can bet the hosts will be ready.

Given the Flames' recent history in October it’s tough to blame fans who’ve been bracing for the worst since the schedule came out.

Former Flames coach Bill Peters often referred to first-period embarrassments as “not showing up on time.”

Try that against Connor McDavid at your peril.

“We just need energy right away,” said Sean Monahan, one of many core players looking for a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs last year.

“The last couple years I don’t think we were great to start seasons. I think this year is different. We have a different mindset. Camp has been different, the intensity is there right now. There are a lot of guys on this team that have something to prove.”

Indeed there are, and the man in charge of helping them, coach Darryl Sutter, is notorious for his preparation and how he helps players focus on the moment.

“It’s up to the players to be prepared and dialled in from the start,” said Elias Lindholm.

“Obviously you want to be that team that comes out of the gate strong and wear the other team down for a couple minutes. I feel like the last couple years we’re letting the other team score first and we’re on our heels until the third when we start to play and chasing the game, which is tough.”

As Hanifin added, “It sucks when you’re behind the eight-ball at the beginning of the season.”

It sucks worse to make history, for all the wrong reasons.

Flames last ten season starts:

• 2011-12 – 4-5-1
• 2012-13 – 3-4-3
• 2013-14 – 4-4-2
• 2014-15 – 5-4-1
• 2015-16 – 2-7-1
• 2016-17 – 4-5-1
• 2017-18 – 5-5
• 2018-19 – 5-5
• 2019-20 - 5-4-1
• 2020-21 - 4-5-1

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