Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
Another game, another must-win for the Flames. That’s going to be something to get used to, for as long as the Flames are a bubble team pretty much every game from here on out is going to be a must-win.
This one more than most, though. The Flames’ lackadaisical efforts against the Jets and Devils also came in must-win games, but they weren’t as important as this one was. They aren’t competing with the Devils for a playoff spot. In all likelihood, they aren’t competing with the Jets, either.
They are directly competing with the Predators. Going into this game, these two teams occupied the seventh and eighth spots in the West in points percentage, with the Kings right on their heels. They played against a team missing P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. And now they’re ninth.
Four minutes, really?
The Flames exhibited almost no real signs of life until they were well down – and not until Kris Versteeg’s goal finally broke the shutout with just under four minutes to go.
And that’s all it was. A breaking of the shutout. One small, moral victory to take into the dressing room– wait nevermind now they’re only down two goals. Wait it’s been waived off, because apparently the NHL has to waive off goals the Flames score in every game now. Wait, no, they actually got this one right, and down two goals with about three and a half minutes to go, there’s maybe a chance.
Johnny Gaudreau’s efforts on the third goal were outstanding, but would have been more the stuff of heroes – which, granted, we have seen from him before – had he been fighting to get the game-tying goal, and not just to pull them back within one. (We’ll get into a couple of things that could have turned the tide for the better much earlier in the game for the Flames in a moment.) But to me, at least, his work on the third goal was pretty much a “last gasp”, and that was all we were going to get.
Turns out it was, because the Flames completely played themselves out of time.
You don’t get points for showing up at the end of the game, literally or figuratively. The Flames dealt themselves a pretty big blow to their own playoff hopes with that performance. If you’re competing for a playoff spot, there are no moral victories. There are just victories, and the Flames spent a solid 56 minutes trying to ensure that they would not get one. Four minutes obviously does not undo that.
Wrong PP unit, guys
The Flames had an absolute gift to work with during the first period. After the so-called “first unit” spent their time getting a few shots in but mostly flubbing around, seconds into the “second unit’s” shift, Dougie Hamilton drew a tripping call, giving the Flames a 46-second five-on-three.
What to do when gifted with such an opportunity and with a relatively fresh second unit out there? Why, send out your first unit and watch them chase almost the entire time.
That must have been the easiest five-on-three kill any team has ever had to do, ever. That was beyond embarrassing.
How to put this? The Flames are a 21.0% powerplay team, 12th in the league. They’ve risen from the depths, clawing and scratching and finally scoring with the man advantage.
And when I say “they”, I mean Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Matthew Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton, and Mark Giordano as of late. The Flames are a one-line, one-pairing team (plus T.J. Brodie on occasion nowadays and Sean Monahan’s fight back to relevancy). That’s one of the best five-men units in the NHL – the fact that they aren’t starting every powerplay, and especially something as glorious as a five-on-three opportunity, is bad.
The Flames have scored eight powerplay goals in January. Five came from the second unit; the first unit got two against the Colorado Avalanche back on Jan. 4, plus one last night in what looked like garbage time. That’s it.
I get maybe wanting to play your struggling unit more in hopes they break out of the funk, but not when you’re down a goal to a team you are directly competing against a playoff spot with and you’ve been gifted with a five-on-three. Just send out the unit that actually scores, and maybe you’ll get something with it.
Instead, all the Flames got was a pathetic mess.
They completely blew that opportunity for no good reason. And by the time they got the hint to start with the second unit, the Flames were already down 4-0. It shouldn’t have mattered anymore, and really, ultimately, it did not – but it might have meant something if they had gotten the hint way, way earlier.
Goals for the “start Brian Elliott” fund
Chad Johnson has done a lot for the Flames this season. Like, a loooot. He strung together numerous impressive performances, he helped carry the Flames earlier in the season, and he deserves credit for that.
In that vein, it would also be a disservice to consider his recent play acceptable. Johnson gave up two bad goals – the exact same goal, even – to the Florida Panthers after a fantastic game by Brian Elliott against the Oilers. That should have been enough of a signal that, hey, maybe Elliott should get the next start, especially considering how crucial the next game was.
Apparently not, though, and numerous softies against Johnson later, is it time to go back to Elliott? That’s the thing with having two good goalies: even if you’ve anointed one your starter as the Flames appear to have done with Johnson, if he struggles, you still have another really good player right there ready to pick up the slack. To not use him is baffling.
Elliott should have had the start for this game. And the one before. And the one after. It’s not like this is all Johnson’s fault – multiple unchallenged breakaways and some really stupid penalties in particular come to mind, not to mention that whole thing where his teammates didn’t score until there were only four minutes to go – but as it turns out, just one extra stop from the last line of defence would have been huge.
Johnson hasn’t been playing up to par lately, and in Elliott’s most recent game, he was.
What did we learn from the game last night?
Or, more importantly, what do you think Sam Bennett and Brett Kulak learned from the pressbox?
I’m not going to scream that scratching Sam Bennett for a game makes Glen Gulutzan history’s greatest monster or anything. Bennett is young and has been struggling lately; maybe this works as a hard reset. At least, you’d better hope it does, because otherwise the Flames dressed a suboptimal lineup against a direct playoff competitor for no reason, all while there are other players on the team who deserve a healthy scratch way, way more than the 20-year-old. (One of them is the third-highest paid forward who still has three years left on his deal after this one, for reasons.)
And you’d have a pretty hard time convincing me Kulak is worse than a number of defencemen who had the pleasure of skating for the Flames last night. Stuff it with the “oh no but what if Vegas claims him!!!” talk – Kulak probably being the fourth best defender on this team isn’t a compliment to anybody. It isn’t a threat to him being claimed. It’s an indication the bottom half of this defence is bad and they’re wasting potential in the middle of a playoff race by entertaining it.
What comes next?
January should have been an easier month for the Flames; instead so far they’ve dropped multiple games to opponents unquestionably worse than they are, and it’s seen them booted out of a playoff spot for the time being.
The next game against the Oilers just got even more important than it already was. After that it’s an eastern Canadian swing, an All-Star break, and a mixed February that will also see them have their five-day bye.
Five home games left until the trade deadline, and maybe some solace taken in the fact that the Flames have had a better road record this season. We’ll see where on the bubble they are just under six weeks from now, though I suspect it’ll be more like the 2014-15 trade deadline, if anything: stand pat, maybe trade an expiring contract, and that’s it.
Until this team can figure out how to be consistently good, they shouldn’t be buyers. It’s a part of rebuilding, but man, is it frustrating. There was just no excuse for how they played last night.