DALLAS – The blood-encrusted cuts atop the knuckles of Matthew Tkachuk’s left hand are a reminder of how this series is being led by the Dallas Stars.
No, not because the Stars have beat up on the Flames at all.
Tkachuk got the edge in his wrestling match with John Klingberg when the two dropped gloves to open up Game 3.
No matter, as the damage was done, both to Tkachuk’s bloodied paw and the Flames’ game plan.
You see, as a 5-on-5 club, there are none better than the Calgary Flames.
With that in mind, it is becoming increasingly clear that part of the Dallas Stars’ plan of attack is to keep the parade to the penalty box coming.
And the Flames are playing right along in a series they now trail 2 games to 1.
When a gentle Swede like John Klingberg finds himself sitting atop the playoff penalty minute race with two of his three career fights adding to his 26 minutes thus far, you know it’s by design.
That was made clear once again 90 seconds into Saturday’s game when he targeted Tkachuk.
“Last game I wasn’t expecting it, but I got chased around the first second I got out there so I’m like ‘alright, perfect,’” said Tkachuk, happy to oblige.
“If they want to play chippy we can play that game. We can play a skill game, we can play any type of game. I think our team is better suited for 5-on-5, but if we do get power plays I love our power play and I’ve loved it all year.
“Whatever comes our way right now there’s a lot of belief in us.
“The way we play over the course of a seven-game series I can see us getting better and being more successful as the series goes along. Hopefully, that comes true for us.”
Indeed, as the Flames’ 41 shots on goal Saturday can attest, they are finally starting to get more chances in the NHL’s lowest-scoring series.
However, until they start to realize that even off-setting penalties are to their detriment, the Stars have them right where they want them by disrupting the Flames’ ability to roll four lines, and limiting the 5-on-5 play the Flames thrive on.
Only 69.5 per cent of this series has been played at 5-on-5, compared to 81.3per cent during the regular season.
“I don’t like the 4-on-4s,” said Sutter.
“I talked to (series) supervisor (Don Van Massenhoven) yesterday morning. I think it’s seven 4-on-4s in the series and that’s really rare. It would take you 20 games to get that many in the regular season.
“They (the officials) can handle those situations better, and both teams can handle them better.
If you’re in there after the whistle, what’s it for?
“If they want to take two guys you’re just hurting the team.
“We’re a good team 5-on-5, that’s a fact. We’re as good as there is, so you want to be 5-on-5.”
The Stars outhit the Flames 44-23 Saturday and are happy to engage after whistles.
Jamie Benn takes every opportunity he can to discuss world issues with every Flames player during stoppages, as part of the plan.
As good as it was in Nashville for the Flames to prove they’ve got one another’s back and are as tough an outfit as any in the league, they need to stop the silliness.
The difference Saturday was an early 4-on-4 goal by Radek Faksa and a late game-winner by Joe Pavelski on the power play.
“Special teams beat us there, so we’ve got to find a way to score on the power play,” said Johnny Gaudreau, whose club is on an 0-for-11 skid with the man advantage since opening the series with a power-play goal.
“Underdogs all year. No one expected us to be where we’re at right now. We’ll just keep that same mindset all year and we’ll be fine.”
After the loss, Blake Coleman, Trevor Lewis and Sutter all spoke of the need to cut down on penalties.
As good as fights like Tkachuk’s are to hype up the lads and the crowd, they play right into the hands of the Stars now.
Otherwise, despite losing two in a row, the Flames do appear to be playing better in a tight-checking matchup.
“We’re not gripping too tight at all,” said Sutter, whose club has just three playoff goals, matching Pavelski’s total alone.
“Quite honestly, our guys are in a good place. We’re doing a lot of things we’ve done all year, we’re just not getting the results. But in a series, you’ve got to get results or you run out of real estate.
“Even (Saturday) night, they score a power-play goal and a 4-on-4 goal and that’s the difference. It’s a fine line.
“Everybody wants to talk then about your goal scorers, and that’s fine. But it’s got to be through your lineup. It can’t just be one player.”
That means specialty teams can’t dominate games anymore, as they have around the NHL playoffs where the officiating standard hasn’t dipped to allow more infractions like in past playoffs.
While Flames fans are getting worried they’re watching another playoff meltdown, the players are confident they’re putting things in the proper perspective.
“We’ve got to come in here and win one game – a split is a great thing for us, get home ice back and that’s all we’ve got to think about,” said Tkachuk.
“We know that this series, ultimately with the way the two teams play, with the competitiveness and the similar styles, will probably go the distance, if not really close.
“We’re a very confident team. They’ve won two in a row, we won the first one. It’s a series for a reason.
“I have more than enough belief in this group to know we can come out of this.”