The Jolly Rancher didn’t even have to be behind the bench to start Sutterizing his new team.
While Darryl Sutter watched from his farmhouse in Viking, Alta., as part of his COVID-19 protocol, the Calgary Flames responded to his hiring with a first period that exhibited the type of spirited start the veteran taskmaster will be pushing for.
Fully engaged from puck drop, the Flames took it to the Oilers in a rugged fashion befitting the Battle of Alberta and Sutter’s style.
Two first-period fights, 21 shots, a whopping 19 hits and a tenacious forecheck that led to a power play goal and a 1-0 lead.
Clearly they knew the boss was watching.
And then came the predictable drop-off that got Geoff Ward fired.
Failing to record a shot in the first seven minutes of the second, the Flames allowed the Oilers to push back and eventually even the game late in the frame.
From there the see-saw battle continued.
By night’s end it was the Oilers earning kudos for persevering through a tough spell that ended with Connor McDavid’s late goal, ending his club’s three-game losing skid.
While there’s little time in this shortened season to celebrate moral victories, no one could fault the Flames' effort on this one.
“It’s obviously difficult to lose – I thought we had a really good start,” said Noah Hanifin, whose first goal of the year early in the third put the Flames up 2-1 following the type of grind-em-out shift from Elias Lindholm’s line Sutter would cherish.
“I think if we play that way and compete that way we’ll have success more often than not. The one thing we’re looking to improve on is our compete and work ethic and I think that was there tonight. It was a step in the right direction.”
Perhaps Sutter’s tack will include being furious with the mere suggestion progress was made.
However, it didn’t seem there was much Sutter could fault his new troops on early in the third when Lindholm, Dillon Dube and Matthew Tkachuk put their work boots on for a series of battles down low that led to Hanifin’s goal.
“When we have big, heavy shifts like that it’s going to help us wear down teams and have success,” the defenceman said.
“That’s the game we want to play.”
McDavid spoiled Ryan Huska’s coaching debut by setting up a Kailer Yamamoto goal five minutes later, before picking up his third point of the night with a snipe from the face-off dot that bounced in off the far post with four minutes left.
“I think we played the whole game — I thought we played great,” said Jacob Markstrom, who made 30 saves in his return from injury, yet still tried to fall on his sword post-game.
“The biggest difference tonight was goaltending. I think Smitty (Mike Smith) made a couple saves and I didn’t when I needed to. It sucks feeling like you didn’t bail out your teammates.
"I thought we played a great game over 60 minutes. There are obviously things to improve, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It sucks getting the loss out of this game when the guys played so well in front of me."
The highly entertaining display of big boy hockey saw the Oilers finish the night with two more hits than the Flames (42-40), and they deserve plenty of credit for the moxie they displayed throughout.
Darnell Nurse did his best to stop the Flames' early momentum by dropping the gloves with his former teammate and pal Milan Lucic, earning the latter the distinction of being the only player ever to earn a fighting major while playing on either side of the provincial punch-up.
James Neal fought Tkachuk later in the period with what would have brought the house down had there been fans at Rogers Place.
“I think (the emotion) was where it needs to be and that’s the challenge moving forward,” said Huska, whose NHL head coaching experience now matches the number of games he played in the show – one.
“The effort in the first period was really good. There was an emotional attachment to the game, which was important for us. That’s something we have to work on maintaining for 60 minutes, not just the first period. I thought we gave up a little too much room as the game went on and we allowed them to get into our zone too easily, which is really how they got their three goals.”
Huska will be behind the bench again Sunday night when the Flames host Ottawa.
Sutter expects to complete his COVID-19 protocol before joining the team for practice Tuesday and will make his return to the Flames' bench Thursday at home against Montreal.