Flames 4, Coyotes 2 post-game embers: Still learning, still growing

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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:

chart

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.

At least he isn’t Anthony DeAngelo. 

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.

  • Jakethesnail

    Let’s not get too excited it is a win for Elliot but overall terrible stats this year. Let’s see if he can keep it up for the rest of the season.

  • Baalzamon

    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.

    The Ducks will. The Oilers won’t.

  • Lucky 13

    In a perfect world we would see players utilized properly and if there’s one thing that miffs me about Gully it’s player usage.

    Chiasson love affair must end soon. I really like Chiasson but he’s best suited for 4th line minutes, not 1st line.
    Ferland on right wing, Versteeg on left wing last night?Head scratcher

    Brodie on left side? Paired with Wideman… no wonder he’s -20

    Frolik definitely should be on the PP, no question, even when Brouwer returns. Hey how about we use # 1 PP defence with #1 unit? Gio and Hamilton makes more sense with Gaudreau on the PP if we’re concerned about player usage and productivity? I know our PP is great right now but let’s just see if that boosts our 1st unit? Brodie passes too much on PP and Backlund PP unit can do anything with nothing (as we’ve seen all season)

    Maybe I’m just plain too thick to understand all of this, but Corsi scores and my eyes are telling me we could do much better in player usage.

    • Baalzamon

      Brodie on left side? Paired with Wideman… no wonder he’s -20

      Brodie didn’t fair any better when he was playing with Giordano earlier this year. He’s legitimately struggled this season, and it’s not all Wideman/Engelland and right/left related (there are also signs that his game is turning a corner recently).

      Maybe I’m just plain too thick to understand all of this, but Corsi scores and my eyes are telling me we could do much better in player usage.

      That much is true. The team really has one consistently functional forward line.

      • Lucky 13

        “Brodie didn’t fare well with Giordano earlier this year ” is very true however in retrospect no one was playing well together for the first 20 games. Watching Wideman last night was painful, he looked as if molasses was running through his veins. (Yes he scored, but it was a great screen by GGs pet Chiasson)

        I’m of the impression (last 3 games) that Brodie is starting to find his stride again. I just feel horrible for him being positioned with Wideman, that’s all.

  • Trevy

    Considering we started with an overhaul of new coaches and a new system, we now seem to be trending in the right direction. You want to see progression with each passing month and I believe we are seeing the fruits of GG’s labour in doing so. To make the playoffs in his first season as coach of the Flames would be a true statement.

    The defense still needs work and with Wideman and Engelland coming off the books in the off season, I really hope BT tries his best to sign Alzner from the Caps. He’s the perfect fit to play alongside Brodie and is also a Calgary boy. Maybe he wouldn’t mind taking a little less to play for his hometown. IMO

    • Derzie

      I’m curious what you see as ‘trending in the right direction’? Honest question because I don’t see that. I see no one having career years except the corsi forwards (3M line). Everyone else is behind where they should be. I see goaltender confusion. I see a negative goal differential. I see the Oilers better than us for the first time in 11 seasons. I see 2 ineffective ‘top’ lines. I see Brodie on his opposite side dragging an aging anchor around when there are Stockton options to replace said anchor that would allow Brodie to be where he shines. I see a forward in Chaisson that should be eating popcorn but is getting top ice time and PP time. Trending in the right direction? I’m missing something.

      • Trevy

        Wins, PP, PK, more wins with each passing month, in a playoff wild card position. You compare us to Edm, they should be in the position they are with that talent and a proven coach in his second season with the Oil. The Flames have undergone some modifications in the off season. To come out of the gate contending for a playoff spot right away is ludicrous, hence a few months in the season with progression is trending in the right direction.

        You obviously are a glass half empty kind of guy.

        • Burnward

          for sure.

          When they all get going, could be fun. Only happened a few times this year.

          No everything comes easy. The kids might be hitting a few bumps, but injuries, line adjustments, confidence crisis are things they have to learn to adapt to at the NHL level.

          Gaudreau at the ripe age of 23 is the oldest of the kids.

  • flamesburn89

    Credit to Elliot, he’s played well against teams that you’d expect the Flames to beat. Now the Flames need to see him put up those kinds of numbers against actual playoff teams.

  • Derzie

    It makes me absolutely furious that Chiasson led the team in ice time. He is by far the worst player on the roster yet here we are. GG should be fired on the spot for this usage alone. An absolutely indefensible usage. I cannot support a coach who does this. Win lose or draw, it shows he’s biased and not too bright.