Welcome back to hockey, we hope you had a merry Christmas.
Last night, the Flames grinded the gears of the Colorado Avalanche in a game where the enemy never really stood a chance besides bits of the first period (which, Rick Ball and Kelly Hrudey will remind you, is because they flew in that day).
It’s a good first step after the holiday break.
Praise and a Pyrrhic victory: Mikael Backlund’s game last night
If you have read this site, you know that we like Mikael Backlund. You have probably even read that exact sentence a few times, usually at the beginning of anything related to Mikael Backlund. He’s pretty good, and we do not apologize for liking him. Through the years, you have probably read a few articles detailing said goodness (each word is an individual article, fyi).
There’s a lot we’ve said about Backlund, and it tends to get repetitive. Half of this section may accidentally be plagiarized from the articles linked above.
That is because Mikael Backlund is so damn good that the wonderful things he does are almost expected of him. He had two goals and an assist last night, matching his season high for points in a game (vs Winnipeg on Dec. 10, and the Canucks five days earlier) and placing him second on the team in scoring. As usual, he was extremely handy on the PK, where he nearly spent equally as much time (4.67 TOI) as he did at 5v5 (6.38).
There was almost nothing he could do wrong. The Flames, so decisively better than the Avs at 5v5, were bailed out constantly by Backlund’s nearly perfect work on the PK. On his last shift of the game, casually killing a 5-on-3, Backlund helped break up what was probably Colorado’s most threatening moment of the game, blocking a puck and breaking up the cycle before heading off to the bench.
Here’s the dark side: that block was the reason that was Backlund’s last shift of the game.
Before we all panic, let’s remember that Glen Gultuzan said that he hoped it was just a knee bruise and he did not seem too concerned in the post-game presser about Backlund’s condition. We don’t have to read too deeply to get that information. Backlund is likely fine, and it’s very likely that they didn’t play him in the third period because they didn’t need to (he was on the bench to start but was pulled aside by trainers shortly thereafter).
We need to look at the worst case scenario though. If the Flames don’t have Backlund, there is no replacement. They are in major trouble. There isn’t a player like Mikael Backlund on this roster, and very few on any other roster, AHL or NHL.
That’s why even the very possibility of losing him for a week or two sends a shake down your spine. Backlund’s value and usefulness this season has been through the roof, and it’s absolutely undeniable that he is the team’s lifeblood this year. If, heaven forbid, Backlund misses a few games, Gaudreau will go on scoring and carrying half of this team as usual. But without Backlund, they’re going to lose their #1 centre and best PKer. That’s a disaster.
Life without Brouwer
Prior to last night’s game, the team announced that Troy Brouwer, injured against Vancouver, would require another evaluation and the results wouldn’t be announced until the next day. Usually, that’s a very bad sign and probably means he’s going to be out for a while.
Now, Brouwer is someone who is easier to replace than Backlund, so let’s start with him. Thanks to the Christmas roster freeze, the Flames couldn’t replace him with anyone. Instead, Micheal Ferland got bumped up with Monahan and Kris Versteeg. That line was alright in the 5v5 4.72 TOI they played together, but didn’t stay long together thanks to a problem we’ll get to soon-ish.
The 10-23-79 line means that Garnet Hathaway and Lance Bouma slotted in on the same line. Unless the problem is “we don’t have a good AHL team,” there is rarely a problem that can be solved by adding more Hathaway and Bouma. They’re both in the low 40s for CF% for the season (they were sub-50 CF% for the game against the Colorado Avalanche), and with their combined seven points in 36 games, it’s a recipe for disaster. Matt Stajan’s back can only stand so much.
The first answer is to put in Freddie Hamilton, someone who still exists and is at least a marginal improvement on the other two. Given that he hasn’t played since Dec. 2, that’s probably not going to happen, so the Flames are probably going to call a body up for the next game.
There’s plenty of good candidates for such a role. You could call up Hunter Shinkaruk or Linden Vey if you want someone with NHL experience. Maybe give Morgan Klimchuk or Andrew Mangiapane a shot at the big leagues. Perhaps give Emile Poirier one last chance? All of these guys have their own benefits. Shinkaruk, Poirier, and Mangiapane can be used as reliable goalscorers. Vey is a useful fourth line grinder and Klimchuk a useful 200 foot player.
Whatever the case, please do not play Hathaway and Bouma together, especially if it means a young prospect has to sit in the box. There’s very little they can offer the team besides supposed things like “energy” or whatever. Play someone who is actually a goalscoring threat, and not a seven minute wonder.
Reigniting a goaltender controversy
Over Chad Johnson’s last
three games, he has allowed four goals every time. In Brian Elliot’s
last five games (four starts), he has been lights out on every night but last, allowing two goals or fewer and having a SV% of .920 or more. If the Avalanche didn’t pull one back in garbage time, that trend would hold true through today.
There’s a few factors affecting this. Johnson was not going to be a >.940 SV% superstar every night, no goalie is. Elliott was not going to be a <.900SV% washout every night, no goalie with his history has been. But he has also been playing some soft competition recently, including the Islanders, the Coyotes, the Canucks (unrelated, but it’s very funny to me that the Canucks only have 14 wins and the coach they fired won 13 in a row), and yesterday’s opponents. On the other hand, Johnson got the Lightning, the Blue Jackets, and the Sharks.
Here’s what their 5v5 SV% is looking like from the start of the season to now:
And the 5v5 HDSV%:
Common hockey sense would dictate that you ride the hot hand. Elliott is bringing his performance back up to the level expected when he was acquired. He’s playing good, let him play. Yes, it was against weak competition, but perhaps some confidence was all he needed to get back to the Elliott acquired at the draft.
On the one hand, can you really trust Elliott? Outshone by his forwards, Elliott turned in another ho-hum performance last night against a team that has scored the least goals in the entire NHL. Worst case scenario, he’s creeping back towards those old trends that kept him out of the starter’s net for a long time.
On the other hand Johnson has had an expected rough stretch, but he’s almost always been a ~.920SV% goalie throughout his career and through this year. Do you hand him the net and trust him to put in his usual performance?
The fact that I couldn’t really make an argument for Johnson tells me my choice. The net is yours, Brian.
A recounting of the all-time Flames weird goals
Let’s end this on a good note:
The most curious part of this game was the fact that, despite the Flames scoring six goals, four of them took incredibly non-standard paths to the net:
- Goal number one: Backlund (behind the red line) pass attempt to Tkachuk -> Rantanen’s skate -> net
- Goal number two: Engelland shot -> Bennett’s stick -> Beauchemin’s skate -> net
- Goal number three: Gaudreau shot -> the backboards -> Pickard’s shoulder blade -> net
- Goal number four: Frolik shot -> Pickard save -> NOBODY -> Backlund -> net
I would really like to emphasize the “NOBODY” on that final goal. Check out the aerial view here (a few seconds into this gif)
Another weird one.
Backlund with his second of the night
— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) December 28, 2016
There were four Avalanche players there and nobody did anything, allowing Backlund to step in there and just tap it past a sprawing Pickard (who put in an amazing performance even with six goals against). That is very bad/good.
Back to the topic at hand: I got thinking about the all-time weird Flames goals, because a lot of weird goals happened in this game.
Here’s Dennis Wideman and the magic puck going in and out of the net on Jonathan Quick:
Here’s Johnny victimizing the same team for his first ever hat trick (video is already cued up, but if it doesn’t, it’s 1:25 in):
And here’s T.J. Brodie doing some nonsense against the Bruins in the same season (Ari believes that it’s no coincidence that all these goals happened in the 2014-15 season, as it made absolutely no sense):
And here’s a fun one from former captain and Forever-a-Flame Steve Smith:
I have nothing to say about these weird goals other than it took me a few minutes and a bit of help from my comrades to think of four odd goals in the 36 year history of this team. Four really weird ones happened in this game alone.