CALGARY – In the midst of the Calgary Flames’ 2004 playoff run under Darryl Sutter, it was Ville Nieminen who best summed up the secret to his team’s improbable success.
“We play hospital hockey,” deadpanned the lovable Finn before delivering the punchline.
“Lots of patience.”
It doesn’t work in print as well as it does on the ice.
Seventeen years later, the Flames used a similar style – minus the hooking, holding and general harassment of that era – for Sutter’s return to the bench on Throwback Thursday.
Wearing the retro Blasty jerseys against the league’s most celebrated franchise, Sutter’s troops combined a relentless forecheck with a steady, methodical defensive structure that limited the Montreal Canadiens' chances in an old school, 2-1 win at the Saddledome.
“This win is two-fold,” said Sutter afterwards.
“One is for the late Ken King, who we lost a year ago. And the other is for my mother (Grace) for her 85th birthday today. This win is for those two.”
King, who hired Sutter to turn the franchise around in 2002, died exactly one year earlier.
Sutter originally planned to help host a celebration Thursday at his mom’s “downtown” Viking condo with cupcakes and his six brothers, but had to miss the festivities after being hired late last week to try turning the team’s fortunes again.
So far, so good.
“I thought we played a patient game and pretty much a mistake-free game,” said Sutter of his team’s decidedly measured approach.
“We have six or seven turnovers to get out of our system, but to play against a team that doesn’t give up much and come away with the win… we needed it. We were six points behind coming into the game.”
Make that four with a return engagement Saturday at the Dome under an even brighter spotlight on Hockey Night in Canada.
It should surprise no one the team’s new masked marvel counted on his goalie and his grinders to get the job done on this night.
Josh Leivo did his best Nieminen impression, emerging as the game’s star with both goals on a fourth line with Derek Ryan and Sam Bennett.
Two delicious dishes from Ryan set the stage for the oft-scratched winger to score his second and third goals of the year – upping the team’s fourth-line goal total to five on the season.
Look for that to increase steadily under Sutter.
“We had four lines – you want to win games in this division you need four good lines,” said Sutter, who hadn’t been behind a bench for five years, dating back to his stint in L.A. where he won two Stanley Cups.
“We’re going to have to work at that because we’ll play a much better team Saturday night. It could be they were very good, but it could be there was another line we couldn’t put out there.”
Pressed on which line he wasn’t impressed with, Sutter was vague.
“The big thing is this division, you have to play with pace and you have to check and that comes into your ability to stay with it. We have to work with our players to do that,” said Sutter, who had the fourth line out for the final 40 seconds to preserve the win.
“I’m not singling out anybody. I just know as a team we’re going to have to be a hell of a lot better.”
There it is – the Sutter mantra.
No matter how good you were, the constant push that will drive players to the brink or new heights, is to be even better.
Fact is, they’ll have to be if they’re going to climb out of the deep hole this inconsistent team was in when he inherited them.
Consistency wasn’t an issue Thursday as a scoreless first period was built upon with a second that saw an opportunistic Flames club cash in twice while outshooting Jake Allen’s Canadiens 14-5.
“It’s very obvious how he wants us to play – he wants a fast-paced game, structured, and I think that’s what you saw for just about a full 60 minutes tonight,” noted Ryan, who said the key is pushing the pace with the type of forecheck his line employed to create the game-winner on a night Jacob Markstrom only faced 18 shots.
“I think everybody was confident and 100 per cent in on what we needed to do on the ice on every shift. No one was hesitating or questioning anything. It was a lot of fun to play that way. Hockey is a game of patience, especially at the NHL level, but I think Darryl is instilling the importance of playing hard and fast every shift.”
Leivo’s shocking emergence was symptomatic of Ryan’s leadership and doggedness on a night when the veteran centre helped kill both Flames penalties and finished with two assists, as did Bennett.
Ryan played a season-high 14:41, which is a trend you can expect to see more of as Sutter rewards his hardest-working players for setting important standards not previously met here.
After Corey Perry cut the Flames' lead in half with a redirect midway through the third period, there was no sign of the panic that has too often followed adversity.
It might not have been that much fun to watch, but that’s also the Sutter way.
He knows winning is the ultimate entertainer.
Another throwback moment came in the third when Josh Anderson and Milan Lucic engaged in the type of heavyweight tilt the new boss is happy to see, especially from a familiar face he’ll also lean on heavily to set tones nightly.
“Every win, they’re all the same,” said Sutter, skirting sentimentality given the monumental task at hand.
“Take it and get ready for the next one.”