For the past few seasons, the Calgary Flames have developed a reputation. They’re a hockey club that doesn’t score first often. They don’t lead often, and so they chase in games. They tend to let the other team to dictate what type of game is going to be played. Wins happen, sure, but they’re dramatic and labour intensive for the team.
So far this season? Not so much.
Last season, the Flames were 20-5-2 when they scored first. But they scored first less than half the time, which resulted in chasing in games. They trailed, on average, for 21:12 in every game – 13th in the league. They led for 21:42 per game, 14th in the league.
So far this season, the Flames have scored first in their last five games after allowing the opening goal in Edmonton – going 4-0-1 when scoring first. Last season, the Flames led after the first period just 19 times. This season, they’ve led after the first period four times (4-0-0) and they’re fourth in the league in time spent leading per game (35:03) and they’re sixth in least time trailing (8:49).
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So what’s different so far this season?
“I think we’re doing a good job of our preparation and what we do to establish our play right from the drop of the puck,” said forward Milan Lucic after Tuesday’s win. “It starts with the players, but also the coaching staff – especially Darryl, he puts an emphasis on us having a good start. That’s always huge. Your confidence, your ability to make plays, your swagger, it’s always easier and better when you have the lead. We’ve just been able to have good starts and that’s something we need to continue to emphasize going forward.”
Scoring first and playing with the lead allows teams to roll four lines and play a simple game rather than press for chances. Pressing for chances often led the Flames to abandon defensive play last season, leading to subsequent scoring chances (and goals against) while the team was scrambling to tie the game back up.
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Responding to a subsequent question, Lucic noted that the Flames’ wins haven’t been perfect, but that the club has been better at taking what’s available and playing within their system.
“I think that’s been the difference so far this year and what we didn’t have last year, is we’d get frustrated,” said Lucic. “We’d try to do too much and all that type of stuff. It’s never going to be perfect, so you’ve just got to stay within the system, stay within the game plan and that’s when you give yourself the best chance to win.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter noted that the team’s still adjusting to the way he wants them to play.
“I think we’re learning how to play the right way,” said Sutter. “I think it’s an adjustment for our group. Players that have been here for awhile, it’s a big adjustment process of learning how to play the right way and do it consistently. It’s got nothing to do with work, that’s for sure. This team works really hard. It’s just a matter of playing together and doing things right.”
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The Flames (4-1-1) are back in action on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.