Candice Ward/USA TODAY Sports
It took a little over 15 minutes for the Calgary Flames to break out a four-goal lead.
This is a story we’ve seen before. It’s not a common one – the Flames’ still-negative goal differential (-6 heading into the new year) would point to the fact that this is not a team that experiences many blowouts in their favour – but the Flames have started to really punch down other teams as of late.
That’s four or five in the month of December. Well, almost; the Flames still have this pesky habit of not quite knowing what to do when they’ve got a big lead like that – though that third period was much better.
Learning to play with a lead
On Dec. 4, the Flames should have beaten the Anaheim Ducks 8-1. They beat them 8-3.
On Dec. 10, the Flames should have beaten the Winnipeg Jets 6-0. They beat them 6-2.
On Dec. 23, the Flames beat the Canucks 4-1; they rebounded after a fluke goal against to score four straight, and never let up.
On Dec. 27, the Flames beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-3. They probably could have had fewer goals against, though.
And finally, on Dec. 31, the Flames had the chance to beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-0; they beat them 4-2.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here; with a 9-4 December, the Flames had a good month. They’re certainly better than they were to start the season, and each of those games was rather fun. Not perfect, but fun.
However, if the Flames are going to take that next step – right now they look very much to be a bubble playoff team; we want them to be a regular playoff team – then they’re going to have to tighten things up, even when they do have a big lead. Those four goals against earlier in the month against the Ducks and Jets were particularly bad, and a sign of a team that’s still learning.
And that was the Flames again last night. They had a good first period in the sense that they were scoring a whole bunch, though the Coyotes had the puck more. And that in and of itself is fine – I mean, the Flames did score a bunch of goals – but the Flames’ sloppiness and haphazard play carried over into the second, when Brian Elliott’s shutout was ruined through no real fault of his own and what had initially appeared to be a laugher really started looking like a game the Flames had to take seriously.
Via HockeyStats.ca, here’s the corsi chart from the game, adjusted for score effects:
Not a great second, but they woke up and got back to it in the third. Even though the Coyotes had the only goal of that period, the Flames were markedly better.
So that’s what you want to see. At the start of the month, the Flames were blowing out opponents and then conceding stupid, lazy goals against at the very end of the game for no good reason. To end the year, they started playing again.
Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come for the new year – because that’s way more fun to watch.
That second powerplay unit was pretty nice
Put Michael Frolik on the powerplay, Frolik picks up two powerplay points. His first powerplay points of the season, as a matter of fact.
Frolik has now played 16:56 on the man advantage, and now has two points to show for it. Alex Chiasson has played 30:19 on the powerplay, and has one point to show for it. Poor Sam Bennett has played 76:25 on the powerplay, and only has two points to show for it himself, which is unfortunate – but I think we’re all understanding that Bennett has maybe a little more potential than Chiasson.
The general point here being: that whole Frolik-on-the-powerplay experiment might just be worth looking into.
Frolik is no longer the team’s leading scorer – he did finally snap a 20-game goalless drought, so that’s a pretty fair indication of things – but he’s still one of their top scorers (with 21 points he’s fifth in team scoring, having just passed Sean Monahan), so you’d think he should be on their powerplay.
And it worked. Really, really well. Though that isn’t too surprising, considering his unit consisted of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton – inarguably the Flames’ top defence pairing – and the 3M line, which one could make a very decent argument for being the Flames’ top line, period. You put that five-man unit, which has a tendency to drive play in lesser circumstances, out there in a situation they have the advantage, and it’s not terribly surprising they scored twice.
It’s probably premature to say they should be the number one powerplay unit – they don’t even have Johnny Gaudreau – but considering just how effective that lineup has been at five-on-five throughout the season, well, it’s honestly kind of amazing they hadn’t really been tried before.
A healthy Troy Brouwer bumps Chiasson from the powerplay. This leaves Bennett without a spot, but this is probably a unit worth keeping together for a while yet. (Though it does leave T.J. Brodie, a player who rather notedly does not shoot, on the first unit, so there are still a few kinks yet to work out.)
Of fourth liners, ice time and not
This is special teams’ fault, but it still happened.
I want to stress: I do not have a problem with Chiasson. It’s the same way I didn’t really have a problem with Joe Colborne last year. Decent enough player, but it’s the overmining that’s killing him.
Chiasson played 19:37 last night. He led all forwards in ice time. Hell, he had more ice time than Hamilton.
And whatever the circumstances of a game may be – seven of those minutes were on special teams; if you go only by even strength, Gaudreau and Bennett played more than him – that doesn’t take away from the fact that Chiasson was the ice time leader, which would typically not be a thing you’d expect him to be.
And for good reason: he’s Alex Chiasson. Again, not an insult. But a gross miscasting.
While I’m here, a shoutout to Lance Bouma for not just putting five shots on net last night – more than everybody else, on both teams – but for scoring a goal as well. He’s not an offensive player. He probably isn’t going to be ever again. But he was noticeable in good ways against the Coyotes, and it’s always nice to see someone have a good game.
(This tends to happen more when players play the roles they’re suited for, hint, hint.)
Matthew Tkachuk technically played fourth line minutes – 10:26 in all – but he also got himself benched after his third penalty of the game. Which, good; the Flames are well aware of their status in the NHL this season regarding penalties, and Tkachuk, with 70 PIMs, leads the team by a fair margin. It needs to stop. He needs to stop. Not just because being on the penalty kill is hurting his team so much, but because he’s too valuable an on-ice presence to have him wasting time in the penalty box like that.
There’s being an agitator, and then there’s taking the penalties yourself. Corey Perry, for example – whose game Tkachuk loves – only has 27 PIM this year. There’s a line Tkachuk still has to find.
Who’s the starter?
Brian Elliott had a bad start to the season, but then again, so did pretty much everyone not named Mikael Backlund or Frolik.
Against the Coyotes – a team that outshot the Flames at evens in the first, a team that had their legs under them in the second – he posted a .931 save percentage.
Since returning to the net more frequently, he has posted save percentages of .926, .929, .893, and the aforementioned .931. The .893 was the 6-3 Colorado game, which we talked about earlier; otherwise, those numbers are all pretty good.
Granted, in that stretch he’s played the Coyotes twice, the Canucks, and of course, the Avs. So not exactly a great roster of teams. But his uptick in numbers is very much worth noting, particularly as Chad Johnson started to stumble back down to earth from his god mode.
The Flames’ next opponent of… let’s go with “talent”… is the Sharks on Jan. 11. We’ll see who takes that game, but an Elliott rounding back into form means good things for the Flames, so hopefully this keeps up. Because good things can entail…
Entering 2017 in a playoff spot
When we talk playoff spots, we’re only talking points percentage. The Flames have still, for some reason, played the most games in the NHL; raw points are not exactly the friend here.
The Flames currently have a points percentage of .538. That’s good for eighth in the West. They hold the last wildcard spot; now, they just need to keep holding it.
Who’s their competition? If we don’t assume much change from now – which is a stupid thing to assume since there’s still half a season left, but for the sake of making this easy for the time being – then the teams they’re right in the thick of it with are the Los Angeles Kings (.541), the Nashville Predators (.528), and lately, the Dallas Stars (.513).
Those three teams – in addition to seeing if the Oilers and Ducks fall (they have a lot of loser points racked up, those two) – will probably be the ones to watch over the second half of the season.
But make no mistake, the Flames are very much in the thick of it. January looks to be a pretty easy month for them relatively speaking, so we should expect to see them maybe even start to pull away a bit. But I really do believe, at absolute worst, we’ll be getting meaningful games in March.
If they continue to grow over the second half of the season as they did through their first, I like their chances of playing a game 83, and so on.