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First skate of season let doubt sink into Flames

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames



Asked to pinpoint the first visible cracks in the facade, Bob Hartley didn’t ponder or dither.

Oct. 7th.

Opening night.

A 5-1 pistol-whipping administered by the Vancouver Canucks, on home ice, at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Celebration turned to confusion.

Fantasy to reality.

Weightlessness to gravity.

Yes, in the mind of the man in charge, the beginning of the end was in a very literal sense precisely that.

A manhole-cover-sized seed of doubt surgically, immediately implanted in the collective consciousness of his Calgary Flames.

“Our start,’’ lamented the boss, assuming blame for his team’s playoff. “Ninety-four goals (against) in (the first) 24 games.

“How can you win?

“We lost, what, eight, nine games in a row last year but it was in the middle of the season where we had built enough momentum, enough confidence, to say: ‘Hey, we’ve done it. We went through a tough stretch but let’s get back in gear.’

“This year, from Game One, doubt got into us. I don’t think it was a matter of effort as much as trying to do too much. When you do too much you go the wrong way.

“Having had the individual meetings (Monday), that was a topic, how guys felt: ‘I’m going to do more in order to compensate.’

“And it was a disaster.”

Where a more mature, veteran group might’ve been able to recover, to guide the ship safely to shore before running aground on the rocks, the youthful Flames foundered.

Only five points of a possible 22 to open the 2015-16 account. Hardly Usain Bolt-like out of the blocks.

Their frailties laid bare. The amped-up expectations -- their own, the city’s -- working against them.

Managing to rebound the next night to return the favour in OT and beat the Canucks at Rogers Place, the Flames then reeled off four losses in a row, six in seven.

In retrospect, they never truly recovered.

“Our start,’’ repeated Hartley, “created the doubt. Last year our start gave us a push. Everyone counted us out, no one gave us a chance. We were almost lucky to be part of the NHL.

“Compared to this year … we were supposed to overachieve again. And suddenly, that loss against Vancouver in the home opener was a shock.

“Almost like a boxer that’s supposed to win and five seconds in the first round he takes a good one on the jaw.

“Yeah we won the next night in Vancouver but we never got going.’’

So Monday the Flames were left to sift through the debris field of a season gone wrong.

And the events of Oct. 7th featured prominently.

“It’s a difficult league to chase in,’’ agreed general manager Brad Treliving during his turn at the microphone in the Ed Whalen Media Lounge. “When you’re down 3-1 (in a game) it’s difficult to chase. When you’re chasing your season …

“You look back, last year the Ottawa team that went on just a terrific run. But you can’t rely on trying to find that momentum and flip the switch. So I think our start played a role.”

Perhaps subconsciously, at some level, the players bought into the that the next was nothing more than inevitable. They’d been warned. The message beaten home mercilessly after falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Second Round during the spring could hardly have been more emphatic.

Beware complacency, in any form.

“I remember the mood around our team,’’ reflected Treliving. “Such high expectations, we come in and lose the home opener to Vancouver, then you go into Game Two feeling it was a must-win.”

“Maybe,’’ echoed Hartley, “we thought it would be as easy as last year. But last year was not easy. When you win, everything seems easier. There are less complaints.

“You accept roles way easier than when you lose.

“It’s a totally different game. Whether it’s minor hockey or the NHL, it’s the same thing. When you win things seem so much easier to do, to achieve, to accept. Your role is maybe not what you want but because the team is winning, you’re fine with it.

“Lose a few games, you have the same role but suddenly you feel that someone’s getting an advantage on you.”

That insidious doubt Hartley spoke of manifested itself in many forms. A year ago, no deficit was too great, no mountain peak too high, no opponent too grand.

Ahead, behind, tied. It mattered not. Those Flames just went out and … played.

“(Last year) we didn’t care (about circumstances),’’ sighed Hartley. “We were down 5-2 after the second period, I’d get in the locker room you could feel that belief.

“Last year it was almost like a bunch of delinquents. Like: ‘Boys we’re going to come back.’ And then: ‘Yes!’

“Because we believed in ourselves, because of our start.

“This year we never got going.”

To hang all the ills of the on one night, however influential, would be to undersell what needs upgrading and repairing, of course: Team defence. Goaltending. Special teams. They all took a turn in the blender of regret Monday.

But in the throes of self-analysis, everyone kept harkening back to that stuttering start.

And in particular all the way back to Oct. 7th.

To opening night.

As if that night a hatchet had been buried in the middle of the forehead of the happy-face self-portrait they had worked so awfully hard to draw throughout a magical season of resurrection.

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