Near collapse a rude awakening

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Just when it looked as if the Calgary Flames were going to ace their first test, they showed they still have a lot to learn.

Beating the hated Vancouver Canucks 5-3 at the Saddledome in their season-opener earns them a passing grade, but they got schooled over the last half of the game.

Allowing 21 shots in the third period alone is no way to play defence.

Instead of tightening up, they got tense.

"They were definitely exploiting us a little bit in the third period, but we weren't playing that aggressive," said Eric Nystrom, whose fourth line was arguably the most noticeable for the Flames on a consistent basis.

"We were just sitting back and trying to hang onto a lead."

Staking themselves to a 3-0 lead in the first period, the Flames looked like the class of the Western Conference on opening night.

Mark Giordano started the scoring with a nifty move on the powerplay that made Rick Rypien look silly before the Flames defenceman's hard shot found the top shelf behind Roberto Luongo.

It was Giordano looking foolish on a giveaway late in the third period, ultimately ending in a Canucks powerplay that gave the visitors a shot to tie the game.

Rene Bourque and Adam Pardy also beat Luongo in that stellar first frame. The whole team looked unbeatable.

And when Nystrom's linemate Brandon Prust scored his first goal in nearly a year to make it 4-1 at the halfway mark, any thoughts of a Canucks comeback went out the window.

They blew back in when Mikael Samuelsson scored on the powerplay with less than two minutes to go in the middle frame. Alex Burrows added a third goal in the opening minute of the third and the Flames panicked.

They let out a little air after killing off Daymond Langkow's penalty late in the game but didn't appear to breathe again until Dion Phaneuf iced the opener with an empty netter.

"Anytime you have a lead, we have to learn to shut it down," said Giordano.

"We're happy to win, but there are still a lot of areas to improve in."

Under Mike Keenan's guidance, the Flames were a streaky team -- from game to game and sometimes minute to minute.

New head coach Brent Sutter has installed a structured system designed to keep the players aware and on the attack regardless of the score. He's hoping to avoid the ups and downs the team has struggled with over the last few years.

But it's natural for players to forget the gameplan when things get intense and momentum seems to be slipping away.

Chalk up last night's near collapse as another lesson learned.

"That's something we just talked about," Nystrom said after the coaches held court in the Flames locker-room for a few extra minutes. "That's an old habit we have to break."

"You've got to stay aggressive. We got away from that."

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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