CALGARY – Well before the Edmonton Oilers served the Calgary Flames their first loss under Darryl Sutter, the new coach repeated his belief that his squad ranks well below most Canadian teams in star power.
On Wednesday his theory was hammered home.
Abandoning the tight-checking, team-first approach to limiting chances, the Flames got another spanking from the world’s top two players.
“I think it kind of follows up to what I said at the start when I came here, in this division there’s way too much power in terms of offence and our team has to play a very, very strong checking game,” said Sutter, following a 7-3 loss to the Oilers.
“It doesn’t matter who we are playing next. This team has to learn we don’t have the firepower to put ourselves in a position to not be good defenders or check in our own zone. If they don’t play that way they’re going to…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t have to, as everyone knows what will happen to a team sitting three points out of a playoff spot if it questions its coach’s theory.
They certainly didn’t second-guess him in the three previous wins under Sutter where a fast, relentless approach gave new life to the team. Life that was sucked out of it by giveaways and the team’s age-old discipline issues that put the game on a tee for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to feast again with a pair of ho-hum three-point efforts that have become the norm against Calgary.
“Look at the division, you’ve got power plays operating at over 30 per cent,” said Sutter, whose club was scored on three times in four shorthanded situations, thanks to penalties to Brett Ritchie, Mark Giordano and Andrew Mangiapane.
“Take a lazy penalty you’re going to put yourself in trouble — we did it back-to-back to start the third, and we did it in the first period too. They’re unnecessary. The perfect player now takes zero penalties. Works hard, finishes checks and takes zero penalties. We’ve got some work to do there too.”
Asked to compare his defensive demands to the team he coached to the Cup final here in 2004, Sutter was clear.
“This team probably has more skill than that team, (but) that team was more mature and understood it better how they had to play,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. Look at the shots on goal (33-30 for Calgary). I don’t think we’re going to score eight goals and beat Edmonton 8-7.”
If the Flames didn’t know it before, the message should be clear in their minds as they fly to Toronto for games Friday and Saturday.
“When you’re playing against Connor McDavid, especially when you’re trailing and when you chase the game and give chances and play that run and gun style, he’s sniffing for blood there,” said Matthew Tkachuk, whose club faced its first deficit under Sutter when the Oilers jumped out to a 2-0 lead seven minutes in.
“I guarantee Toronto was watching us tonight and probably licking their chops the way we played. Those skilled guys over there are wanting a game like that on Friday and Saturday night. That’s not the way we’re going to be playing against them, I guarantee that. Otherwise we’re going to be in for two long nights.”
No one had a longer night than Jacob Markstrom, whose club came close to cutting the Oilers' 2-0 lead in half with a sustained attack early in the second before one of many giveaways put the Oilers up 3-0. Two quick power-play goals in the third broke open a 3-1 contest to put the game out of reach in Markstrom’s worst game as a Flame.
“(Crap) night by me,” said Markstrom, who stopped just 23 of 30 shots to give the Oilers their fourth win in six games against Calgary. “I feel terrible obviously. They scored on every chance they got pretty much. It’s embarrassing and frustrating for sure.”
McDavid’s goal and two assists give him 12 points in his last four games against Calgary, and 14 in the series. The league’s leading scorer lives for games against the provincial rival, pacing the Oilers to within two points of division-leading Toronto.
With the game out of reach early in the third against the league’s highest-scoring team, did Sutter consider pulling his marquee netminder?
“Not for one shift, second, minute, anything,” said Sutter, whose team dropped to sixth place thanks to a Vancouver win that thrust it ahead of Calgary. “I’m on record for this on any team I’ve ever coached — I do not believe in pulling the goalie.
"I hate pulling the goalie. It’s like benching someone. I believe you stick with teammates and you fight your way out of it like everyone else. It’s basically a trust thing. I think he’s an awesome goalie, but he has to be able to battle too.”