Photo credit: Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports
I would have said, “That’s it, back to Winnipeg!” but it doesn’t work in this context. Winnipeg is Atlanta, Phoenix is Arizona, and nobody is going back to anywhere. Except the Flames’ little three-game point streak is over, they’re still in the bottom four of the NHL, and… they’re going to get swept by the Coyotes this year? Maybe? We’re already four-for-four, with just one game to go.
At least the Coyotes winning puts them four points up on the Flames – and four points further away from better lottery odds. It’s the little, self-hating victories that make this time of year.
Mikael Backlund, a highlight of this season
Let me preface this by saying: I am knocking on wood as I write this. I am not jinxing this. I come here to celebrate, not to tempt fate.
Mikael Backlund has played 68 NHL games this season. The Flames have played 68 games thus far, too. This means one simple, awesome thing: Backlund has yet to miss a game, and is on the verge of finally playing his first full 82-game season in the NHL. Just 14 games to go.
He’s currently on the verge of a career season offensively. He’s on pace for 18 goals, which would tie a career high he set over 76 games back in the 2013-14 season, but he’s also on pace for 43 points, which passes the 39 he scored that same season.
True, 14 of his points have come in his last 18 games, which has greatly impacted his scoring pace, but most scorers are streaky. And it falls in line with the roughly just-above-half-a-point-per-game pace he’s been playing at the past four seasons. The key difference this time, of course, being that he’s healthy: hence, more points. And suddenly, fifth in team scoring.
Backlund has bounced primarily between the second and third lines this season; in an ideal world with a rebuilt Flames team, he’d be the third line guy, and probably not in as great a position to score as much. But he does have two goals in his last two games born from sneaking in behind the play and putting himself in perfect position to receive a pass for an easy tap-in, and that’s been fun to see.
Backlund was the most-used forward in last night’s game, with Michael Frolik right behind him. The penalty kill played a large part in getting them top minutes, but hey – that’s also where they scored.
In a season that’s been mostly downs, it’s been great to see Backlund finally thriving as much as he has. Is he a core player? Not really. Is he an important part of the Flames’ depth and defensive makeup? Absolutely – and it’s even better now that he has Frolik alongside him.
Putting Kenny Agostino on their line was a great way to bring him back up, too; though he didn’t score, bringing in rookies alongside two strong possession forwards is setting them up for success. Just look at early Sam Bennett’s first strides in the NHL. Maybe Backlund and Frolik will form the rookie initiation line of the future?
We’ll have a bit more on Agostino later today.
Welcome back, Dennis Wideman?
Dennis Wideman played 18:00 in his return, including 3:19 on the power play, and 2:04 on the penalty kill. He was fifth in defencemen ice time, ahead of just Jakub Nakladal (14:00), but one of just two defencemen to receive meaningful time in all three situations, the other being Mark Giordano. (I’m not counting Jyrki Jokipakka nor Deryk Engelland’s five seconds on the power play, nor Dougie Hamilton’s 15 seconds on the penalty kill, as meaningful.)
In all situations, Wideman was tied with Josh Jooris for the second worst CF (34.78%, with 53.85% offensive zone starts; Jooris had 36.36%, but also played nearly six fewer minutes). At just even strength, Wideman was still right at the bottom: second last, and a 35.00% CF player. Only Lance Bouma was worse.
Wideman spent most of his time with Nakladal, but Nakladal was a 45.45% ES CF player. Wideman didn’t face particularly difficult competition, either. Rough return for him, though he has been sitting out for over a month, so he does have a built-in excuse.
On rebounds and backchecks
Joni Ortio has, for the most part, been putting up some good games as of late. His overall numbers aren’t great, but disastrous start to the season – probably at least partially caused by things out of his control (i.e. the three goalie system that saw him a perpetual healthy scratch) – played a pretty big role in that. Lately, though, his numbers have been respectable, if not fantastic.
Against the Coyotes, he let in three goals over 25 shots for a .880 save percentage: the first time he’s dropped below .900 in five games.
The first goal, it’s difficult to blame him for; it was a shorthanded chance created off of the rush. While Dougie Hamilton’s skating is more than adequate, he wasn’t able to take away the pass; Johnny Gaudreau and Giordano hauled ass to get back in time, but by then it was too late, as Jordan Martinook’s pass connected perfectly with Boyd Gordon’s stick, and the game was tied.
The second goal against both was and wasn’t his fault. Coverage on the penalty kill remains bizarre; Shane Doan had a wide open lane to pass to Martin Hanzal, who got it right to a sneaking Antoine Vermette nobody had covered until it was too late. But the broadcast did point out that it was Ortio’s fault the Flames were on the penalty kill to begin with: he let a dangerous rebound directly into the slot, which forced Jokipakka to take a holding call to try to prevent anything worse happening.
Then, there was the third goal, and backbreaker. Again, it wasn’t fully on Ortio; had Sean Monahan not missed the net off of Gaudreau’s perfect pass, the game would have been tied, rather than going back the other way. But Gaudreau ended up turning the puck over when trying to pass again, Monahan and Micheal Ferland were absent on the backcheck (though it is kind of fun to watch Giordano and Gaudreau put their hearts in it – and Hamilton keep pace simply because he can), and while Gaudreau did help, in part, to force Doan to the outside, Ortio followed him.
And put himself out of position as his rebound went right into prime scoring position. Hamilton was in front of the puck, but not close enough to swipe it away, nor enough of a goalie to actually protect a wide open net. And Ferland and Monahan’s coasting back meant there was nobody else to get it.
Rough night, ripe with areas ready for improvement. But hey: at least you’re definitely justified in punching anybody who says Gaudreau is a purely offensive player who doesn’t backcheck. He goes for it.
This and that
- What I wouldn’t give for Ferland to bury one of those chances he keeps getting seemingly every single game. I can only imagine how he feels. He only has six NHL goals! Every single one counts.
- It wasn’t fun watching Max Domi run Ortio. It was fun seeing him immediately apologize. It was way more fun seeing Giordano, Hamilton, and Garnet Hathaway immediately swoop down on him, crowding the poor rookie and pushing him away from their goalie, all three looking ready to go at any moment. I get the feeling this team can handle itself without a designated goon.
- Bouma was the Flames’ worst possession player, and with 11:19 played, near the bottom for ice time. He played two more minutes than Brandon Bollig, and a handful of seconds more than Hathaway and Matt Stajan. All the while not looking particularly great.
- I get Hathaway’s new and probably still riding at least somewhat on adrenaline, but if he’s already playing in a physical role and posting superior corsi stats than Bouma… while Ferland is another physical guy whose play has him getting tryouts on the top line… and that’s to say nothing of what someone like a Turner Elson may be capable of should he get a chance… That’s a lot of potential internal replacements for a fourth line role, isn’t it? So that $2.2 million AAV isn’t looking pretty for Bouma. And all the good graces and extra chances from him being injured half this season go away next year. With the Flames facing a cap crunch, every bit counts, and Bouma’s hit is looking ugly, with no relief in sight.