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It would have been easy to see this game go the same way as the last game against the Blackhawks. Alternatively, that game in Chicago could have gone as this one did, too.
That is to say: the Flames, for the most part, played well. In both cases, they played well enough to win. Luck was with them last night, though; don’t forget just how many almost-sure goals the Sharks fanned on. Any one of those go in, and it’s a different game.
But that didn’t happen. The Flames earned this one, and with a shortened bench, no less. Probably most important of all, though: it was a regulation win in California, and that, more than just about anything else, is what’s going to matter as this season plays out.
If only special teams weren’t a thing
The Flames put themselves in pretty brutal position early on, what with taking a stupid penalty 20 seconds in… and then another one three minutes in… And giving up three powerplays in the first period isn’t really a great way to go about things in general.
The penalty kill came up strong, though; it allowed one goal on five calls. Not all of those calls were, uh, good ones – Sam Bennett did nothing wrong – but the Flames came out of this one having successfully played with fire.
Here’s the difference between even strength and special teams. At even strength, the Sharks won the corsi battle 40-36. In all situations, they dominated it 67-43.
Let’s consider that for a second: with two powerplays (and five penalty kills), the Flames added just seven shot attempts to their totals. The Flames have to stop taking so many penalties – some were warranted, but again, it would help if the officials stopped calling blatant nonsense – but they afforded more scoring chances to the Sharks than they generated themselves on their own powerplays. They somehow don’t have the worst powerplay in the NHL – the Canucks, Bruins, and Coyotes all fare worse – but their 9.3% still sees them in single digits, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better any time soon.
If this team is going to have a proper turnaround, they need to fix their powerplays as quickly as possible, and hopefully stop taking so many penalties. Because at even strength, they’re fine. It would be better if they didn’t take so much time off during games – they had to work their way back into the second period, and were non-existent throughout much of the third as well – but this is a team that can play five-on-five.
Brett Kulak has to stay in the lineup
At one point, I saw someone whose jersey number started with a six make an excellent defensive play, and thought Michael Frolik was doing a good job. But Johnny Gaudreau was on the ice, so it had to be a line change– except nope, it wasn’t Frolik who made the play, it was Brett Kulak.
Kulak got the short end of the ice time stick with just 13:20 – his partner, Deryk Engelland, was actually right with him, except being on the first penalty kill unit saw him get an extra 6:42 in ice time. Okay, so not Kulak’s fault; fewer special teams and he’d have probably seen the ice more.
When he did see the ice, though? His 59.26% 5v5 CF was third on the Flames. Engelland was at 57.14%. As far as bottom pairing defencemen go, this is a combination that works – we saw as much at the start of the 2015-16 season. There isn’t even any cause for worry when Engelland suddenly rushes up the play – which led to two goals last night, delightfully enough – because it just feels like there’s a little something extra to his game when Kulak is there to back him up.
And with Kulak present, we finally got the correct defence combinations. T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano had their best games of the season; almost as if when Brodie says he prefers to play the right, he should – and alongside his partner of the past several seasons that has proven to be a good combination.
This is how it should be going forward.
The points came for Matthew Tkachuk
So, how do two goals suit you? And a beautiful game-winner on the rush in the final five minutes of a tied game, at that. He got the vote of confidence, the first year of his contract has been burned; the time for discussion is over and the time to just sit back and enjoy the start of something new that’s going to last for several years has begun. Sure, the team’s winger depth isn’t great; this kid’s gonna help that, though.
Tkachuk now has three goals and six points in 10 games. That places him in a tie for sixth in scoring, after four different guys who all have seven points each and his linemate Michael Frolik, who now leads the team with nine. (When do we start calling Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik the first line?)
Tkachuk had 16:10 in ice time, including both powerplay and penalty kill time. This is the first time he’s played over 14 minutes. But when you’ve made it…
The points are coming, but you know what else is nice? I can’t remember the last time I saw a rookie of Tkachuk’s caliber play the way he has been. When Brenden Dillon was harassing Frolik in the first period, it was Tkachuk who came in and started whacking away at him. I’d expect that out of a rookie like Garnet Hathaway, because that would be the kind of thing suited for his role; Tkachuk doesn’t need to do stuff like that to get by. He just does. Because that’s how he wants to play. He is wonderfully aggressive. And he’s already loved here because of it.
And the goals. The goals are good, too.
Thanks to Kris Versteeg’s first period injury, the Flames had to juggle their forward lineups. We still saw a lot of the same line combinations, but shakeups were necessary.
Depending on how bad Versteeg’s injury is, they may still be necessary.
Considering how bad the so-called top six has been, they’re absolutely necessary.
We’ve banged on the “split up Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan” drum many times now, and while it’s still something I very much agree with, it doesn’t need to be rehashed again right now. Instead, I want to complain about something else.
Switch Micheal Ferland and Alex Chiasson.
No, Ferland is not a right winger. Yes, Ferland is working very well with Matt Stajan. But, um. How do you have a hole in your top six, and decide that Chiasson is the answer over Ferland? And have it drag on this long?
Ferland is alongside Tkachuk in that little cluster of players who have six points. (Dougie Hamilton is the other one.) Ferland is technically in the top six of scoring. Ferland also had the best corsi numbers of the night. After two periods, one 5v5 corsi event had gone against him. One. He was at 92.31% CF before the Flames imploded in the third period; he finished his night with six events going against him and at 70.00%. The Flames’ current incarnation of a fourth line may not be the typical grinding one, but he is better than that.
And besides, that assist on Troy Brouwer’s goal was awesome – and wouldn’t have happened if Versteeg hadn’t gotten injured. That’s what it took to jump Ferland up in the lineup, and only for a little bit of time, at that.
But if anyone has proven they deserve another audition alongside Gaudreau and Monahan, it’s this year’s Ferland.
Alternatively, play Ferland alongside Bennett and Brouwer, and when healthy, try out Versteeg with Gaudreau and Monahan again. Or if the duo ever do get split up, have Gaudreau with Bennett and Brouwer, and slot Ferland in on Monahan’s left and Versteeg on his right. Bump Chiasson back down to the fourth line.
Ferland is showing a lot. He played 11:03 last night, the least out of all healthy players. That isn’t right.
Chad Johnson faced 28 shots. He stopped 26 of them. He’s the backup goalie. Having faith in two goalies is fun.