The quintessential difference between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks was there for all to see on Sunday night, in the NHL season opener for both teams.
First period: Calgary dominated the play, scored once, hit two goalposts and failed to score on a breakaway after Mikael Backlund neatly split the defence. They held a 16-9 edge in the shot clock and could have had a five-goal lead. They really were that good.
Second period: San Jose regrouped after a terrible 20 minutes and was equally dominant. But the Sharks also demonstrated a far better finishing touch around the net, scoring three times in all, twice by Patrick Marleau, once by Martin Havlat.
In the end, it resulted in a routine 4-1 San Jose victory, putting a damper on the mood of the 19,289 spectators at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
San Jose remains a quality experienced team, one of only two NHL clubs to make the playoffs in each of the past seven years. Theirs is a tried-and-true formula, which relies heavily on Joe Thornton’s playmaking, Marleau’s finishing touch and an efficient power-play.
Calgary, meanwhile, is a work in progress, with a new head coach in Bob Hartley, trying to introduce an up-tempo style of hockey. For 20 minutes, it looked good too.
Backlund, cast as the team’s No. 2 centre in the absence of injured Roman Cervenka, showed flashes of offensive ability – as did rookie Sven Baertschi, who hit a post and had a knack of getting open in front of the net. But the inability to finish was characteristic of Calgary’s play last season (27th overall in scoring) and they’ll need to keep addressing it as the season moves along.
“They won the game in the second period, no question about it,” said captain Jarome Iginla. “In games, you’re going to have swings of momentum and energy. The first was our period and we played very well. In the second, they got it going and got their legs under them. We watched them a little and our habits weren’t strong – just in certain plays that we didn’t make that we were making earlier – that was the game.
“The third was fine. The second wasn’t close. They won it there. We have some work to do. It’s a fast pace we want to play and we did that in the first. We’ve got to make sure we’re skating that way. That’s how we’re going to be effective.”
Marleau was happy to get on the scoreboard in the Sharks’ season opener, joking: “You don’t normally get your first goal in January.
“That first period was a bit of a shock, but after that, the guys fell into it and you get into a rhythm. So we’ll just try to build off that now.”
Early on, the crowd seemed mostly enthusiastic about the NHL’s return after the four-month lockout, though there were pockets of discontent too. One spectator held up a sign lamenting how the fans had been “held hostage” by a labour dispute which produced a 48-game schedule, where every result counts.
If it does and if Calgary expects to be a playoff contender, they can’t let too many more like this one slip through their hands.
“Anybody watching tonight can tell you the story really quick about what was good and what wasn’t,” said Flames’ forward Michael Cammalleri. “There were a lot of positives to take – when we played the way we want to play.”
Theoretically, the Sharks should be readier than most teams to hit the ground running in a shortened season because they made comparatively few off-season changes. Coach Todd McLellan added Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson to his coaching staff; and the club brought back Brad Stuart to add depth on defence. Currently, Scott Gomez is travelling and practising with the team, after receiving a compliance buyout from the Montreal Canadiens last week, and depending upon how his audition goes, could sign with them as a free agent within the next 48 to 72 hours.
Otherwise, though, there is little to separate this edition of the Sharks from those of years past. They are a perennially good regular-season team, still awaiting a playoff breakthrough.
According to McLellan, the experience and winning pedigree that Robinson and Johnson bring “can only help us. It’s provided a new energy in our locker room. There’s an instant respect factor when they walk into the room. The players know who they are and what their pasts are. So I think all of that helps.
“But we still are the San Jose Sharks. We still have the same group of players. And that familiarity is going to be an advantage to us as well. We understand who we are and what we need. We just have to put it together and perform.”
Calgary, meanwhile, is still adapting – to a new coach and new faces in the line-up – heading into Monday night’s date with the Anaheim Ducks.