The Calgary Wranglers rode into the Scotiabank Saddledome on Sunday afternoon, bringing more high-level hockey to the city.
Their debut was marked by festive music outside the building, a Flames-like intro show and a healthy throng of fans in the stands.
But there was no win to go with the official start-up of the American Hockey League in Calgary.
“The crowd was awesome, and it was a fun atmosphere to play in,” said Wranglers alternate captain Matthew Phillips after the 6-5 matinee loss to the Coachella Valley Firebirds at the Dome. “I mean … I wish we could’ve been the team to go up a couple of goals early.”
Instead it was the visitors with the first goal, two of the opening three and five of the starting six in scoring the victory in what was their season-opener, as well.
The barrage of goals by the Firebirds in the first half of the game was the only thing that took the shine of the Wranglers’ start to life in Calgary, which came before a solid crowd of 5,663 hockey folks.
“They were great,” said Wranglers head coach Mitch Love of the fans. “The support in this market is going to be really good for us, as it is for all its hockey teams. Our guys sense that.
“I think a little bit of the first 40 minutes was a lot of nerves, us trying to do too much. And we talked about that before the game — we wanted to really simplify our game. Especially with a nice crowd like this in the home-opener. It doesn’t matter what level you’re in, it’s always a nerve-wracking game for some guys. And we just stood around and watched Coachella Valley play their game.”
Indeed, it was the Firebirds’ Kole Lind with the only one of the first period for his first of four points on the day. In the second, the visitors really ratcheted up the scoring with four more goals in the first 10:31 — by Andrew Poturalski, Michal Kempny, Max McCormick and Jesper Froden to chase Wranglers starting goaltender Dustin Wolf — answered by the home team only with Jeremie Poirier’s goal.
But that marker goes down in Wranglers annals as the first for the franchise in Calgary.
“It’s a special feeling — the first goal is always nice,” said Poirier, who came in off the point on the power play, grabbed Cole Schwindt’s poke pass and wristed it high over Firehawks goalie Joe Daccord. “But I think when you don’t get the two points, that goal doesn’t mean anything right now.”
It did, however, keep the hosts somewhat upright for the second half of the game, when everything started to click for them. They got two goals late in the second period — one from Nick DeSimone, on a point-shot off the post, and another from Phillips, on a backhand from the slot in the dying second of the frame — to cut into Coachella Valley’s lead.
“(The slow start) kind of showed it was our first fast game together,” said Phillips, whose team’s only other full night as a unit came Tuesday night in a 7-0 exhibition win over the University of Calgary Dinos. “We could’ve been a lot better in our end. That’s how we dug ourselves a hole.
“But we didn’t just cave. We almost came back and tied the game up. So there were still some positives.”
Yes, the third proved much better for the Wranglers, although Lind’s second goal — this one on Wolf’s replacement, Oscar Dansk, 4:51 into the stanza — proved to the winner.
Phillips scored again — on a wraparound — with 5:56 remaining, and fellow forward Walker Duehr netted another Wranglers goal just 46 seconds later — on a fortunate shot from the half-boards — to set up an entertaining finish.
Following plenty of pressure, both Phillips and Radim Zohorna came close to forcing overtime just seconds before the buzzer.
“It was really close,” said Phillips, who played in his 200th AHL affair. “I think the difference in our game was that we got a little more desperate — we simplified and got towards their net. But again, when you dig as big of a hole that we did, you might need a little luck to dig out of it.”
Love agreed, “The third period I liked. But it was all work-based — we started to do a lot of good things by moving our feet and going to the net. But it’s tough to win hockey games at any level, especially this one, only playing 20 minutes of hockey.”
The Wranglers (0-1) and the Firebirds (1-0) rematch Monday night at the Dome (7 p.m.).
“To be honest, we probably didn’t deserve to win this one,” said Wranglers captain Brett Sutter. “Use it as a learning experience — we have to check better, we’ve got to work the full 200-foot game and stay a little more connected. I think if we play the way we played the last 20 minutes, we won’t have a hard time winning games like that.”
“And the fans were great,” added Sutter. “It was good to see them here supporting a new team. Hopefully, there was some excitement around town. And hopefully, if we can put some wins up on the board for them to come, we can see them all year long.”
As the Stockton Heat last year, the Flames AHL-affiliate was a Pacific Division-best 45-16-5-2 … The Firebirds are the first-year AHL-affiliate for the Seattle Kraken, after the Charlotte Checkers served as a farm team — split with the Florida Panthers — for the NHL expansion franchise last year … Stanley Cup winning coach Dan Bylsma heads up the Firebirds bench. The 2010-11 Jack Adams Trophy winner as NHL coach of the year won the Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and hasn’t been a head coach since his last of two years with the Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17 … Wranglers defenceman Nicolas Meloche and Firebirds forward John Hayden dropped gloves early on in the game but with few punches to show from it. There was more fire in a third-period tango between Wranglers forward Mitch McLain and Firebirds forward Carsen Twarnyski, once a Calgary Hitmen staple … The Wranglers lines Sunday were: Phillips with Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier; Schwindt between Adam Klapka and Mitch McLain; Sutter alongside Duehr and Clark Bishop; and Zohorna with Ben Jones and Martin Pospisil. The blue-line pairs for the home side were: Poirier with veteran Nicolas Meloche, DeSimone with Dennis Gilbert; and Yan Kuznetsov with Ilya Solovyov.