No excuse for Flames to lose ‘a game that we’ve gotta win’

After a rotten weekend, the Calgary-based crew has now slipped to 25th in the overall standings at 17-18-5

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The Chicago Blackhawks were missing rookie sensation Connor Bedard due to a broken jaw. They were also missing Andreas Athanasiou and Nick Foligno and Taylor Hall and Tyler Johnson and Seth Jones and just about every other noteworthy name on a roster that isn’t exactly stuffed with those.

The Calgary Flames missed an opportunity. Simple as that.

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There is no sugar-coating Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the injury-ravaged Blackhawks in the Windy City.

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As Flames captain Mikael Backlund summed up before what must have been a miserable flight home: “If we want to be a playoff team, that’s a game we have to find a way to win.”

“It’s a tough one to swallow,” echoed Jonathan Huberdeau, who also has a letter on his sweater, during an interview on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “It’s a game that we’ve gotta win.”

Indeed, this one was inexcusable.

Yeah, the travel has been tough. But even though they were wrapping up a four-game road trip with back-to-back matinees, that’s no excuse.

Yeah, there were some wacky bounces Sunday, with the Flames deflecting a pair of pucks past their own netminder — one that glanced off Rasmus Andersson’s stick and another that banked off the boot of Nick DeSimone. Again, that’s no excuse.

Because we have seen this show before. We’ve seen this same cast — the core pieces, anyway — assume that they can coast to victory against a bad bunch.

“If you think about it, Chicago last year, they beat us three times and we missed the playoffs by a few points,” reminded Flames president of hockey operations Don Maloney during a first-intermission interview on Sportsnet. “That was sort of a message coming in. We said, ‘Listen, we’ve had some tough games, but there’s no excuse for this one, not to be ready for a team that’s had our number for a little while.’ ”

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Thing is, they weren’t ready.

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This loss can’t be blamed on crummy luck or the toll of travel.

It can’t be blamed on a heroic performance by the opposing masked man. Petr Mrazek, who finished with 28 saves, was just fine.

Nazem Kadri tucked two for the Flames, including an awkward-angle snipe that added some intrigue to the final four-and-a-half minutes, while Andrew Mangiapane scored a fluke on the power-play and backup Dan Vladar provided only 17 stops in his second start in a four-day span.

Colin Blackwell was the best of the Blackhawks, potting a pair of goals. That matches his total in 53 outings last season.

Disappointing’ is probably a pretty good word,” said Flames head coach Ryan Huska during a post-game scrum at the United Center.

‘Deflating’ or ‘demoralizing’ might be better.

“They were hungrier and harder than we were,” Huska added.

The Flames have talked plenty about being hungry to push for a playoff invite. They believe they can be a factor in the Western Conference wildcard race and the way they’d be playing in recent weeks, there was reason for optimism.

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It’s going to be hard, however, if you can’t beat the cellar-dwellers, especially when they’re this sort of shorthanded. As the Flames headed for O’Hare, a frustrated fan base was screaming on social media for a rebuild. ‘Trade everybody!’ seemed, not surprisingly, to be the most popular take.

Flames at Blackhawks
Dillon Dube #29 of the Calgary Flames steps in front of Boris Katchouk #14 of the Chicago Blackhawks to take control of the puck in the first period on January 7, 2024 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

After a rotten weekend, the Calgary-based crew has now slipped to 25th in the overall standings at 17-18-5.

That’s still six places up on the Blackhawks, who improved to 12-26-2 after their first triumph of 2024.

“They were in a situation where we needed to take advantage of it,” Huska said of a team that rolled out a top forward line of Jason Dickinson, Blackwell and Kurashev and had the just-claimed-off-waivers Zach Sanford logging shifts on the power-play, where he earned an assist on the game-winner. “And we didn’t do what we needed to do today.”

“It wasn’t good enough,” Backlund agreed. “I think today was more mental. I felt like we were not dialled in enough. There’s just no excuses for that.”

The Flames now return home to host the Ottawa Senators, who just happen to be the worst team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

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Normally, that would be good news. It should be good news.

On Sunday, however, they were reminded that they don’t have enough firepower to be underestimating any opponent. And when they do, this is what happens.

Asked for his assessment of a four-game junket that started with victories in Minnesota and Nashville and concluded with consecutive duds in Philadelphia and Chicago, Kadri replied: “Just OK.”

“Great start. Terrible finish,” he elaborated. “That’s kind of how she goes sometimes. Sometimes, it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. We felt like we could have been above .500. That probably should have been the case.”

Darn right it should have.

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