CALGARY — When the Calgary Flames said they had one goal in mind this spring, they didn’t actually mean one measly goal.
Yet, that’s how many the league’s sixth-most prolific club has scored in its opening two playoff games against the Dallas Stars.
This, against a rookie netminder, whose second playoff start as a professional included saves on all 29 shots that found their way through in a 2-0 win Thursday.
Two nights after the Flames opened their playoff campaign with a 1-0 win, the Stars turned the tables on a series featuring three total goals, including an empty netter.
It says a lot about how tough it was for the Flames on Thursday when the best scoring chance they had all night came in the opening minute of the third when Stars defenceman Jani Hakanpaa hit his own post with an awkward clearing attempt in tight.
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“To be honest, I thought we had a couple more chances than we did in Game 1,” shrugged Johnny Gaudreau.
“They’re a good defensive team. I thought we had plenty of scoring chances tonight.
“Their goalie played well. A couple two-on-ones, a breakaway, they did a good job in their own zone. We’ve just got to score, bear down, put the puck in the net, starting with myself.”
Gaudreau got his first two shots on goal in the series, on a frustrating night that saw five of his shot attempts miss the net and four others get blocked.
It was a microcosm of the game, as the Stars bookended May the Fourth with a forcefield around their net that has made Jake Oettinger’s job much easier.
“Same thing we’ve seen in Game 1 — one guy’s got to get a little bit more involved and not get boxed out so much,” said Darryl Sutter of no one player in particular.
“Their defense blocks out. That’s a top defence in terms of that structure part. I said that before the series. They don’t give up much. Your big guys are going to have to get inside to score.”
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“If you get in front of him, that’s part of it,” added Sutter, whose club outshot Dallas 29-23 and went 0-for-3 on the power play.
“We had a lot from the outside, I think, from our top guys. But they’ve got to be a little more … just be around the goalie more, I think.”
All told, the Flames’ top line managed five shots on goal, but wasn’t much of a threat most of the evening.
Even though it’s the same feast-to-famine narrative this team has authored in past playoff failures, it’s a little too early to start doing anything other than recognizing that both teams are content to try winning games with an air-tight defensive game.
Yes, we know Sutter prefers using the term checking, but that’s a moot point given how good the Stars have been at squashing Flames entries and exiting their zone.
Remember, this is how Sutter and the Flames got to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, so no one in southern Alberta is allowed to complain too loudly.
“It’s playoff hockey — it’s not easy to score goals in the first place, let alone playing a team like this who play extremely defensive,” said Tyler Toffoli, who had a few good looks, with nothing to show for them.
“Their defense does a good job of boxing out and all those things. We’ve got to find a way and kind of dig deep. Our goal was to go into Dallas and win two games anyways. It doesn’t really change our mindset, I don’t think. We have to go there and be prepared to play in Game 3 and just try to take control of the series again.”
There is no panic from the coach or the players in a room with several Cup champions who knew there’d be struggles this time of year.
Flip the narrative on its ear and praise Jacob Markstrom and Oettinger for posting 0.50 GAAs, only to come away with a split.
However, fans will wonder and worry about the NHL’s top line this season, which has yet to make its mark 5-on-5.
The Stars have limited Gaudreau’s time and space, closing almost every imaginable lane to the net.
After being out-hit almost two to one in Game 1, the Stars responded by out-hitting the Flames in a game that saw the hosts give the puck away 13 times more than Dallas did.
Thirty-six of the Flames’ 65 shot attempts never got through, and when they did Oettinger easily gobbled them up.
Frustrating for fans and players alike.
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What did get the joint jumping was an exchange in the opening minute involving Matthew Tkachuk and John Klingberg, who punctuated Game 1 with a threat his club would go after Rasmus Andersson.
Klingberg covered up as Tkachuk flailed away at him with mitts on, drawing a roar from a crowd that booed the Stars defenceman all night.
Klingberg got a measure of revenge seven minutes in when his forecheck on Noah Hanifin prompted a giveaway to Jason Robertson at the point, whose shot was deftly redirected over Markstrom by Joe Pavelski.
Cue the same sort of lockdown Calgary employed so effectively two nights earlier.
“That’s just how both teams play,” said Sutter, whose club travels to Dallas on Friday for Game 3 Saturday.
“It’s quite identical to the game the other night. Just reverse who scored first. Close game, just like the first one — not much difference.”