It was billed as a battle of two legitimate contenders. Owners of the best away record in the NHL, the Calgary Flames faced the Florida Panthers, the top home team.
The Panthers showed why they’ve lost just three times on home ice this season. And the Flames showed some of their flaws that need to be worked on before the playoffs.
“Well, there’s not a post-season if you play like you did tonight,” Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said via Zoom after his side lost 6-2 to the powerful Panthers.
With a 17-8-6 record coming in, an impressive goal differential and a home heavy (COVID-willing) schedule down the second half of the season, the playoffs should be within their reach, but as Tuesday night’s benchmark showed, there is much to be improved.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom allowed six goals for just the second time since joining the Flames before last season. His defencemen had difficulty keeping the crease clear in front of him, and the entire Flames squad struggled with the speedy Panthers rush. Statistically, the Flames came away with the advantage in high danger scoring chances. But they both couldn’t capitalize and couldn’t prevent the Panthers from succeeding.
Puck battles cost Flames in litmus test against Panthers
Blueline stalwart Chris Tanev lost a one-on-one puck battle on the doorstep when Patric Hornqvist lifted his stick and swept the pick past Markstrom to give the Panthers a lead on the power play early on.
But the Flames sprung the deadly Johnny Gaudreau, who tied things up with his 14th of the season on a perfectly placed breakaway shot a little more than a minute later.
Blake Coleman was another of the positives on the night. In one of his best games of the year, he ripped a dozen shots at Sergei Bobrovsky. He gave the Flames their first and only lead of the night in a back-and-forth opening frame – squeezing one past Bob 10 minutes in.
But the Cats struck back twice before the buzzer, and never looked back. Anthony Duclair scored his 13th of the year and Jumbo Joe Thornton both deflecting pucks past Markstrom. Former Calgary Flames prospect Ryan Lomberg scored the only goal in the second period. Hornqvist and Lucas Carlsson piled on in the third period.
“That’s a different level of team we’ve played lately. That’s a team that’s built for playoff hockey,” Sutter said. “We had some guys that didn’t meet that sort of challenge, in terms of the one-on-one stuff.”
Cats rolling offensively on home ice
The Panthers have won their last four home games by a combined 24-10 against the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and now the Flames.
“If you give up that many goals, you’re not going to win,” Sutter added. “We had some defencemen that weren’t into the defending or checking part of the game and it cost us the hockey game.”
Depending on how you look at things, another massive test waits just around the corner. The Flames are in Tampa to play the two-time defending champion Lightning on Thursday.
“Obviously we didn’t measure up very well today, but I think there’s no greater challenge than for us to play the defending champs from two years in a row next game,” said Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk.
“There’s no excuse not to get up for that one so we better be ready.”