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‘Stupid plays in the neutral zone’ costly for Flames

Blake Coleman Calgary Flames Martin Jones Toronto Maple Leafs Blake Coleman Martin Jones - Getty Images

CALGARY – Two days after Calgary Flames forward Blake Coleman came out to the media joyously belting Katy Perry’s “Roar” following a 3-2 comeback win over the Arizona Coyotes, it would have been fitting for the Flames’ leading scorer to come out post-game ruefully reciting the 13-time Grammy nominee’s hit “The One That Got Away” following their 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night at the Saddledome. 

With the Flames (21-19-5, 47 points, third in Western Conference wild-card race) trailing by a goal midway through the third period, rookie Connor Zary appeared to have tied the game, only for the Maple Leafs to challenge that Coleman had passed the puck with his glove. The league ruled in Toronto’s favour and the Flames couldn’t continue their impressive run of third-period comebacks. 

“I haven’t watched [the replay],” Coleman said.

“Honestly, I thought they were looking at somebody else. Just one of those things where you don’t even realize that it happened.”

“That is the right call,” Flames head coach Ryan Huska said.

The moment was pivotal, but not the reason Calgary lost, ending their four-game winning streak.

“Not at all,” Huska said. 

“We don’t lose the game on that call,” blueliner Rasmus Andersson added. 

Huska and Andersson agreed on where the game turned in the Leafs’ direction.

“We did some stupid things in the neutral zone in the second period which allowed them to get themselves back in the game,” Huska said. “That one’s all on us.”

“We lose the game in the second period,” Andersson agreed.

“Way too many turnovers in the neutral zone and against a team like that, if you give Matthews a pinkie, he takes a whole hand.”

“Second period…we were turning the puck over too much in the neutral zone, making it hard on ourselves [and] feeding them,” captain Mikael Backlund said.

Before the second period, Calgary had an opportunity to take a stranglehold on the Leafs. 

The Flames were up 2-0 when Backlund hit the post on a breakaway. Minutes later, his line was hemmed in its own end and missed multiple opportunities to clear the puck. Toronto drew a penalty and on the six-on-five, Auston Matthews potted his first of three on the evening and first of four Leafs goals that were unanswered until Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane scored late in the second period to make it 4-3. 

“It was a long shift,” Backlund said.

“We had some chances to get the puck out and we didn’t. They got all their firepower on the ice…and they capitalized.”

Huska pointed out where the breakdown began.

“It started in the neutral zone,” Huska said.

Calgary never really regained momentum after that, hampered by giveaways and poor puck management the whole evening.

“I look at [the turnovers] as a selfish thing,” Huska said.

“That’s the unfortunate part of tonight’s game.”

There were stretches when Calgary thoroughly outplayed Toronto (22-13-8), and it’s fair to say that it was Matthews, not the Leafs as a whole, that beat the Flames. 

Thursday evening, however, showcased what the Flames are and what they are not. Calgary got decent goaltending from Dan Vladar and worked hard for most of the game, but made bad decisions with the puck and doesn’t have the kind of firepower or personnel that can change the game in a single shift the way Toronto does with Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. 

The Flames also lack the depth that can withstand injuries. Forward Martin Pospisil, who has been on Calgary’s best line with Nazem Kadri and Zary, was helped off the ice in the first period with a lower-body injury. Forwards Adam Ruzicka and Dillon Dube got an opportunity in his absence, but neither generated a shot on goal. 

The Flames don’t have time to wallow in defeat. 

On Saturday, Calgary hosts the surging Edmonton Oilers, who are riding the longest winning streak (12 straight wins) in franchise history and are now in a playoff spot. They’ll have to clean up that one area of their game to have a shot at playing spoiler.

“A lot of times when we get into trouble five-on-five, it’s because of stupid plays in the neutral zone,” Huska repeated.

His message seems to have gotten through. 

“I thought I was garbage all night,” Coleman said.

“I’ll be better this weekend and I expect everyone else to look in the mirror and do the same.”