The big focus in the series to this point has been that everyone is trying to kill everyone else. Headshots aplenty, instigators rescinded, slashes and crosschecks and coaches fined. You get the idea.
Both teams are very guilty of playing this way; for every Hamhuis there’s a Ferland, and for every Bieksa there’s an Engelland. Maybe — maybe — you say the Canucks were the worse actors as the series wears on, because hey they’re losing and they’re frustrated. Remember, most of the bad stuff the Flames did also came in the game they lost.
Maybe that’s how it goes, especially when these two teams who plainly do not like each other at all are the ones meeting. The playoffs have been nasty overall, and there’s no one at the top levels of the league interested in reining things in. Maybe you even say this was foreseeable to some extent because both Calgary and Vancouver continue to employ players whose primary job is to beat people up.
It does strike me as tempting fate, though. If violence breeds violence in this league — and we know that it does — then this is a dangerous proposition for the Flames. They’re very likely to advance at this point (we’ll get to why in a bit), and if the Canucks feel as though they have nothing to lose in Game 5, or theoretical Games 6 and 7, the cheapshots many Flames fans are seeing as coming entirely from their side could increase significantly. That means increased risk of injury to what could be star players — Johnny Gaudreau, for instance, has seemed a bit of a target — or suspension when retaliation happens, which it probably would. Think someone on the Canucks cares if they’re suspended for a game or two next October? Nope. Think it might matter if someone on the Flames gets banned for a game or two in the next round? Yup.
To be fair, things calmed down a bit in Game 4, clearly as a result of an edict from somewhere on high, and Brandon Bollig picked up a 10-minute misconduct for doing something that, earlier in the series, wouldn’t have even warranted a raised eyebrow from officials (because they were too busy trying to break up fights, one assumes). But even as that game wore on, the nastiness ramped up; Ferland through a headshot at Kevin Bieksa that went uncalled and more or less unremarked upon, except from the CBC guys who called it a good hit for some reason.
It’s just a dangerous game to play when the next date at Vancouver means so much.
2. Monahan’s health
Speaking of things that seem to have improved over the course of the series, Sean Monahan looks like he’s at least starting to get over whatever was ailing him early on. But I still don’t think he’s anywhere near 100 percent.
The kid was obviously dynamite in the regular season, generating goals and shots at strong rates even if he was getting buried in possession. And certainly the puck was going in when he was on the ice.
But now the puck isn’t going in so much, and he’s not making up for it. It just seems as though he’s still laboring, and even if Game 4 was his best performance in terms of impact (and time on ice, which is telling), I’m not sure he’s where you want him to be yet.
The days off help, I’m sure, but Bob Hartley can’t hide the top line from quality competition and tougher zone starts forever while they also don’t score at even strength, and Monahan’s health is probably a big part of that. Monahan got tougher minutes than just about any forward on the team this season, and excelled. Against Vancouver — again, not a good team by any stretch of the imagination — he’s being treated as a second-line player in terms of deployment; Josh Jooris is getting tougher assignments right now, and doing better with them than Monahan is with easier minutes.
This seems like a major point of concern.
3. The top line as a whole
With the above having been said, the top line is getting run over pretty well here in this series.
They’re scoring on the power play, sure, but the total number of points at even strength they’ve provided through four games is a big goose egg. And look, trying to analyze scoring trends in the playoffs is a bit of a fool’s errand because it’s such a small sample size; they’ve been on the ice for about 23 shots each and none have gone in. That could be an uncommon run of bad luck — insofar as I’d wager there weren’t too many 23-shot stretches during which Gaudreau, Monahan, and Hudler didn’t have a point — or it could be because they’re effectively getting shut down.
You heard this criticism a lot with Sidney Crosby in the last few years. So-and-so many playoff games without a goal. But he was always driving possession, often to an hilarious extent. Not so with the Flames trio, who made that something of a specialty in the regular season (speaking relative to the rest of the team, anyway; they were still below 50 percent). In fact, of the three, Gaudreau has the highest possession share at just 43.8 percent. That’s what David Jones did in the regular season.
But even still, a few points on the power play isn’t good enough for this line. Other people have stepped up. Sam Bennett, for instance, has been very good at creating chances, even if he does need to keep his head up a bit more. But “Leading Scorer Kris Russell” is a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of hockey fans everywhere. Except Vancouver.
4. Same old problems
The good news for the Flames is that they’re winning the series 3-1 right now and the likelihood that even a team as poor in possession as they have been (third-worst among the 16 playoff teams) is going to lose three straight is remote — it’s something like 9.8 percent of teams down 3-1 come back to win the series. Only 27 teams have ever done it.
But still the problems persist. And maybe you’ve all been right all season, and the Flames really are only the second team in league history to figure out how to keep winning despite being outpossessed and getting roughly average goaltending. The Ducks are the other, but they’re not outpossessed every night like the Flames are, and they have two truly elite players on the front end to drive shooting percentage whereas the Flames do not. (They might in a year or three, through Monahan and Gaudreau and Bennett, but I’m not so sure you can count on any of those guys becoming Getzlaf-and-Perry levels of dominant. Almost no one is.)
They’re very lucky they drew the Canucks thanks to this playoff format, because the Canucks are almost as bad as they are, and with worse goaltending. That tends to lead to a lot of shooting success. And likewise, because Willie Desjardins is managing his bench like an idiot — “Let’s play the Sedins 14 minutes for no reason!” — they’re making Jonas Hiller’s job relatively easy. Vancouver’s getting a lot of shots, but they’re not getting a lot of quality chances.
(And to that end, it’s worth noting that the Flames actually have positive possession numbers when the Sedins are off the ice. Which, again, if you’re Vancouver has been entirely too often. But that also means that if they’re getting smoked in overall possession, the Flames have been extremely lucky to have the Sedins put up just one goal at evens through four games; their on-ice shooting percentage is 2.56, one goal on 39 shots for. Such good luck for Calgary.)
It’s still not a recipe for success in the long term, of course, because the volume of shots they’re conceding means that even with a decent shooting percentage (9.8 percent in all situations is fourth-highest in the postseason), a great goaltender is only keeping them plus-1 at evens and plus-2 overall.
5. Not that it matters
Shots keep going in. There’s something wrong with Eddie Lack (to the point that Ryan Miller now has to be the goalie for Game 5). The Flames at this point are very likely to make it to the next round.
So they’re playing with house money, really. And even if Anaheim isn’t going to be nearly as much of a pushover as the banged-up Canucks, well, they weren’t — and aren’t — supposed to be here anyway.
That doesn’t validate their approach but it shows they’re continuing to get lucky throughout this season. Enjoy it, I guess.