Flames douse Game 1 jitters

Updated: April 9, 2004, 2:27 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When last spotted still playing this late into the spring, Jarome Iginla was a chubby-cheeked kid of 18 who arrived at the Saddledome the day after his junior team in Kamloops had been eliminated from its postseason run.

That was eight years ago.

The Canucks defense was unable to shut down Jarome Iginla.
Five coaches and three general managers have come and gone since then and Iginla has changed from the unknown guy traded for Joe Nieuwendyk into one of the brightest stars in the game's constellation.

Center Matthew Lombardi, the runt of the current Calgary litter, was all of 13 back in April of '96, just entering his James Dean-red windbreaker-Whaddaya rebelling-against-Johnny? phase of adolescence, wearing Nirvana T-shirts and digging Nine Inch Nails in a suburb outside of Montreal.

Yes, the old world has taken a couple of twirls since the Calgary Flames were involved in games this meaningful. And Wednesday night, that showed.

"Maybe we had to get that first one out of the way to settle down,'' conceded defenseman Denis Gauthier. "It sure looked that way, anyway. For whatever reasons, and there are plenty, I'm sure, we just didn't play Calgary Flames' hockey. That's disappointing but there's nothing that can't be rectified.''

The Flames all agree on one thing: There wasn't much about themselves they recognized in Wednesday night's 5-3 opening-game loss to the Vancouver Canucks in front of the towel-twirling zealots crammed into GM Place.

It was almost an out-of-body experience.

They looked tense, unsure, almost waiting for something rotten to happen to them. Not at all like the patient, assured group that finished third in the league in team defense and racked up 94 points. They were intimidated by the moment.

"Maybe we were wondering what playoff hockey was all about,'' said captain Iginla, as the teams prepped for Game 2 on Friday. "Well, we found out it isn't that much different than regular season. The intensity might be up a bit. But hockey's hockey. The game's the same. That wasn't the way we played all year. We knew we'd have to be disciplined and we weren't.

"We've been great 5-on-5 all year. We play our game and we'll be fine. There's still a long way to go.''

A tentative start, two disasterous penalties by Finnish superpest Ville Nieminen within the opening four and a half minutes, an uncharacteristically shaky performance from record-setting goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, a penalty-killing unit that surrendered four powerplay goals, and nothing much from the top line of Iginla, Craig Conroy and Chris Simon proved a potent cocktail for disaster.

And yet they still hung around, came back from the dead once, and carried the play at even strength. But even with Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier fighting the puck (again), there wasn't enough to stage a second comeback.

Oddly, the Flames seemed a much more relaxed group Thursday, even in the wake of the defeat, than they had heading into the opener.

"Hey Nemo,'' teased defenseman Andrew Ference, as a gauntlet of media stalking Nieminen penned in the chatty Finn in the dressing room. "How many penalties you gonna take tomorrow night?''

Hard to believe there could be many more infractions tallied up than on Wednesday.

The two referees, veteran Don Koharski and apple-cheeked Eric Furlatt, were whistling fools during the opener. The Canucks finished 4-of-6 on the power play. The Flames, meanwhile, were the recipients of an incredible 10 power-play chances. All the stoppages and special teams play ruined whatever flow the game had.

"I can't remember a playoff game with 16 minor penalties like that,'' mused Calgary coach Darryl Sutter. "But I didn't object to the officiating at all. That's the way the game is called in playoffs. We have to adjust. But players aren't machines. Stuff that was called (Wednesday) wouldn't have been a couple of months ago.''

" If some people want to write us off already, fine, it isn't as if we haven't been written off plenty of times before. "
 Denis Gauthier, Flames defenseman
Two individuals that have to step it up, and immediately, if this series is going to develop into the bitter marathon most had predicted are Iginla and goaltender Kiprusoff.

Iginla's importance to the offense isn't exactly breaking news to interrupt Larry King Live on CNN. Kiprusoff has only been Calgary's most important player and indisputably the best acquisition by any team, bar none, this season.

"Iggy is a big, strong, power guy, and he's got to trample people sometimes,'' said Sutter. "When he plays a perimeter game, he's not a very effective player. He's got to get himself more in the mix. We need everyone going to the front of the net. That's where you score goals this time of year.

"This is a new experience for him, playoffs. People say 'Oh, what about his role on the Olympic team?' Hey, that was totally different. The players he was playing with were different. His ice time was different. The style of game was different. The expectations on him were different.

"He's a star in this league now. He has to deal with that.

"Is he putting too much pressure on himself? Maybe. I do know one thing: Jarome wants to win more than anybody else out there.''

Kiprusoff didn't resemble the icy-cool goalie who set a record with a 1.69 goals-against average this season. Far from it. Worrisome for the Flames is that the Kipper has been only sporadically super the past few weeks. None of his teammates were hanging the MVP out to dry, however.

"We're not that down,'' said Iginla with quiet confidence. "It's not a matter of having hit rock bottom or anything. This is great. Playoffs are a battle. The first game didn't go our way.

"We weren't very good in front of Miikka. I want to bounce back and make a difference. I know a lot of other guys in here feel the same way.''

A win tonight would throw the onus back on the Canucks as the series shifts east to Calgary. A loss would leave the Flames with a daunting task.

"I'm sure you'll see a far different team (tonight),'' predicted Gauthier.

"We have that game out of the way and under our belts. If some people want to write us off already, fine, it isn't as if we haven't been written off plenty of times before. We know what we're about and how we can be successful. That's why we're here in the first place.

"We know we have to play better.

"And we will.''

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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