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If you were to try distilling the Vancouver Canucks’ drubbing of the Calgary Flames last night into one clipped concise elevator pitch of an explanation, one might go as follows:

The Flames spent sixty minutes letting the Canucks enter their own zone while failing themselves to escape it.

Bungled pucks and unmarked men in the neutral zone plagued the Flames all game—from their initial stifled power play to that infamous ultimate 4-on-1 firebombing from Brock Boeser. Later in the second period especially, limp and legless breakout attempts pinned the Flames in their own end. And across the opposing blueline, it was a story of missing the net entirely and flinging shots from the roadside ditch rather than the highway.

So, like any modern tragedy, the Flames’ loss was a play in three acts. Struggles in all three zones not only weakened the Flames’ attack but gifted the Canucks with excellent opportunities sealed by all five of their goals. Even Calgary’s lone goal—courtesy of that whirling wolverine Andrew Mangiapane—sprung precisely from the neutral zone space and control that the Flames failed to grasp throughout the game.

But to clarify all these abstract claims about specific breakdowns contributing to the Flames’ loss, cue the following focus…

Grilling the loss, goal by grave and gruesome goal

Hesitation in the neutral zone from a briefly promoted Dominik Simon spurred a dangerous two-on-one starring one of the most bankable centreman in the Scotia North Division.

As Simon chugs across centre ice towards, he slows and swings his hips open to target a streaking Sean Monahan. Rather than risk the tight pass, though, he shrinks from the decision and holds onto the puck. But Simon already stalled his skates and exposed himself to Nils Hoglander’s swatting stick, so the momentary hesitation after telegraphing the pass lets the rookie Swede poke the puck away with ease.

Now, aside from a touch of swollen confidence betrayed by Markstrom in his second sprawling bowling-ball impression of the period, the second goal stems from negligent neutral zone play, too. Quinn Hughes lofts an uncontested pass from his own blueline, where all three Flames forwards are currently stuck behind the play. No highlights lend a particularly stellar view of what preceded the pass, but where was the high forward? Where were the back-checkers? How did Horvat weasel his way into such a gaping expanse of open ice without attracting the glance of a single Flames forward? Some lapse in positioning happened here, and it granted the Canucks the exact neutral zone space they denied the Flames all game—except for Andrew Mangiapane’s goal.

Finally trying to stretch the ice, the Flames exploit the concentration of collapsed Vancouver forwards in their end with a lob of their own. Mark Giordano launches a long pass from his own half-wall towards a Matthew Tkachuk camped at the opposing blueline—while Mangiapane gathers speed in the unobstructed neutral zone. He pounces on the bobbling puck on his fifth hard stride on the rush, and this harnessed speed propels him into the offensive zone at a blistering pace. Since he had the room to maneuver and the instinct not to hesitate through the neutral zone, Mangiapane provides one of those “faint glimmers of civilization still left in this barbaric slaughterhouse…”

The next two goals, however—the first scored 15 seconds after Mangiapane’s tally and the next a mere 37 seconds after the previous, adding up to a total of three goals featured in 52 seconds of hockey that can coincidentally also be expressed as 13/72 of the length of the Arcade Fire song “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” one of the greatest songs released this millennium—came from weak Flames sticks in the defensive zone.

First, Brett Ritchie literally drops his stick while lunging for a puck against Elias Pettersson that it seems he should whack first. If that evidently faint grip was not ineffective enough, Juuso Valimaki then thrusts a poke-check himself directly at the puck that fails to even really redirect the cycle pass down to Boeser. So, two flimsy pokes from Flames players in their own zone allow Pettersson alone to somehow out-muscle an outnumbered onslaught, retain control for the Canucks and spark the goal. The boys in black should have won that battle and cleared the puck.

Next, the Flames squander a clearance opportunity in the defensive zone as Mangiapane shovels a loose rebound directly onto Boeser’s tape. While approaching the rebound and facing his own net, Mangiapane really has two sensible options; he can control the puck, spin and boomerang the puck north, or he can tilt his shoulder into the backhand and bat the puck high into the corner and away from the goalmouth. In reality, though, he does a bit of a both—with disastrous results. He pushes the puck towards the corner with intentions to connect again on a clearance attempt (as we see in his follow-through), effectively attempting a loose, languid stick-handle. He neither corrals the puck nor cudgels it into the corner but blends the two into an uncontrolled carry. And, again, a missed opportunity to seize the puck and scurry out of the defensive zone costs them a goal.

Finally, an uncovered and unclogged neutral zone hammers the last proverbial nail as Nikita Nesterov miscalculates a pinch at the blueline. He creeps across the blueline as the puck trickles towards Tyler Myers, over-skates it (i.e., the puck) and fails in his attempt to turn around and smack Myers’ stick before he executes a clean zone exit. Naturally, a smooth zone exit following a failed pinch entails a smooth zone entry—and they sure never come smoother than a 4-on-1. And so the Flames cemented their fate through twin turbulence in both their own end and the neutral zone, where they closed themselves into the former and opened up the latter for every goal.

Meanwhile, all game long, the Flames missed the net. Johnny Gaudreau elevated the wide-open backhand above and beyond the crossbar, Sean Monahan tipped a backdoor gift past the post, Giordano blasted point shots from the corner of the blueline across the crease. The neutral zone and defensive zone missteps stretched the lead, the offensive zone misfires sustained it.

Knowing what cost them the game last night, imagine what might happen on Friday if the Flames similarly falter on all three thirds of the ice. Draisaitl evading weak poke checks in Calgary’s end? Barrie gathering loose pucks from missed shot attempts and hurling stretch passes? Connor McDavid enjoying pure boundless space in the neutral zone?

Unless the Flames address their failures in every respective zone going forward, yesterday’s nightmare against the Canucks might just prove the opening act before a grimmer show begins.


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