SUN Hockey Pool

Too little, too late

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

DENVER -- First blood goes to the Avalanche. First place, too.

The Calgary Flames' tenuous hold on top spot in the Northwest Division standings has finally been broken.

A 3-0 loss to Colorado yesterday afternoon at the Pepsi Center in the first half of the home-and-home series between the clubs, has the Flames staring up at the Avs atop the mountain.

Calgary now has a one-point deficit to make up against the perennial powers from the Mile High City, heading into tonight's meeting at the Saddledome (7 p.m.).

The Flames will hold three games in hand after today's outing but face the possibility of trailing by three points when this series is complete.

"Does that worry me? No, it doesn't worry me," said Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter of his team's place in the standings.

"Remember what I always say, it's not where you're at in the standings, it's more about how you're playing."

Unfortunately, that is a cause for concern to Sutter. Yesterday, especially in the first period, the Flames' play left little to be desired.

From the drop of the puck, the host Avalanche skaters had a higher gear. Amazingly, the visitors nearly survived the quicksand.

With 9.2 seconds left in the first period, while the Avs were enjoying their third powerplay of the match, Joe Sakic fired a perfect pass to Alex Tanguay to give Colorado's leading point producer a wide-open net to hit.

It's the first powerplay goal surrendered by the Flames since the Olympic break, snapping a run of 34 straight kills.

"After the first period, it wasn't 1-0. It should have been more for them," Sutter said. "Early, we had some players that weren't ready to play and that's disappointing. It's guys that you count on and everybody expects to be good players."

Captain Jarome Iginla was left at a loss to explain the slow start but able to easily quantify the difference.

"They were able to draw three penalties and we didn't draw any," he said of the opening frame. "A lot of times that shows who's skating better."

The Flames likely deserved better in the second period but watched themselves fall further behind.

A big part of that was due to the netminding the Avs got from rookie Peter Budaj, holding the No.-1 duties until the recently acquired Jose Theodore is healed.

Budaj earned his first NHL shutout with several key stops in the middle frame, bringing the sellout gathering to its feet with cheers.

Among the 33 he collected were a trapper save on Chris Simon, a pair of stops against Iginla during a two-on-one rush and -- just before the period concluded -- a kick save that had Daymond Langkow looking to the rafters.

No such trouble for the Avs.

Sakic tallied just after Calgary failed to click on a powerplay past the game's halfway point, and then Milan Hejduk salted away the game with a shorthanded marker.

From there, the Avs cruised to the finish line and their spot ahead of the Calgary. Now it's up to the Flames to return the favour.

"It's a big deal, first place," Darren McCarty said. "We had a chance to put some distance between us and we didn't but we've got the chance to reclaim it (today).

"It's just like a playoff series, you've got to be ready to go back at them and improve on the things we didn't do well."

Miikka Kiprusoff stopped 22 shots in taking the loss.


Videos

Photos