Predators 4, Flames 3 post-game embers: You can’t wait that long

USATSI_9822589_168381339_lowres
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.

  • BobB

    Why is GG so hesitant to try a Gaudreau-Versteeg combo? They’ve played just 55minutes together at EV.

    Johnny-Monahan-Versteeg could be very similar to JH-Mony-Hudler.

    In their best season together, Hudler’s career year with 76pts, Hudler was CF% 48 with Johnny, and CF% 44 with Mony. Not great. But they were a line that was really producing.

    Versteeg and Hudler aren’t so different. Both are smart players. Sure, both are not 1st liners, but Chaisson is a 3rd/4th liner. Both are similar size, in fact Versteeg is taller. Versteeg is younger – a year younger than Hudler in his career year.

    Versteeg is CF 44% with Mony (200min), and 48% with Johnny (55min). Exactly the same CF% as Hudler with the other two in 15/16. Not great but that was the Flames most productive line that year.

    Versteeg is a .24GPG, .57PPG career player. Hudler .23GPG, .61PPG career player. Very similar. I understand that it could not work, but you could try Bennett as well, and maybe that doesn’t work, but just 55minutes of Versteeg and Gaudreau seems like something that should be tried and hasn’t been. Nothing else is working for Johnny, surely not Chaisson!

    • everton fc

      Bingo.

      As for Bennett, leave him either w/Ferland and Chiasson as a 3rd line centre, or move him to LW, w/Stajan and Chiasson. Chiasson has earned 3rd line minutes. Barely.

      Or go hog-wild with a line of Ferland-Bennett-Hathaway. Won’t happen, but I bet they’d pop in some points.

      Kulak may be the #4 d-man if they move on of Jokipaaka or Wideman at the deadline (we should re-sign Engelland to a one year deal for next season).

    • #97TRAIN

      This is exactly why the Flames are where they are . You’re talking about Versteeg playing on the first line. That is a problem. Trade one d for a top six forward and the dynamics of this team might start to change.
      Play skilled people with skilled people not third or fourth liners.

      • Trevy

        Wow, you make it sound so easy…it’s not. I’m guessing BT has been chatting with his fellow GM’s for months exploring every which way to improve his club. The fact remains it’s not easy to make a trade these days in the NHL, especially with an expansion team looming. I agree though that they desperately need a bonafide top 6 winger, whether it’s during the season or off season is anyone’s guess.

        I also agree with a couple other posts stating the obvious that the Flames are just not that good talent wise…yet. They show flashes of the potential they possess, but are obviously still building and learning, along with our coach. I only wish that GG would show some bite, some intimidation as a coach to his players. They seem too comfortable around him and that causes complacency. Even Brouwer during training camp noted that GG is the opposite of Hitchcock where he’s more laid back and not a loud guy. Not sure if a Mr Rogers type of coach, as smart and qualified he may be, is getting through to our guys. Time will tell..

        • Ogie Oglethorp

          Maroon has 4 more goals than any Flame player. Not sure what your point is? They found a guy who fits on the top line and compliments. I’m also pretty sure Maroon has only played on the top line the last week or two. The other 40 games he player on 2nd or 3rd line. So he earned it.

          I assume this was probably what the hope was with Chaisson. A big body that can compliment skill.

          But yeah…. Chaisson is a fail. Nobody has earned it, nobody is pushing for it. I say give Ferland a shot

          • Greatsave

            My point is exactly that: “a guy who fits on the top line and compliments [sic]”. Yet here’s Train spouting off about getting “a top six forward” and how “Versteeg playing on the first line” is a “problem”, while they’ve got Maroon on their first line and their big signing Lucic and former 34-goal scorer Eberle have been bumped off.

        • WSO

          But Edmonton has just that….Connor McDavid on the first line. Having McDavid as a center basically negates any short comings his wingers might possess. You guys have…erhm…Gaudreau. Who is a far cry from connor McDavid.

  • Scary Gary

    March/April will be interesting, we play every other day from March 3 – April 8.

    Ride the hot goalie GG and don’t be afraid to switch back and forth.

    • Ogie Oglethorp

      The last six games: LA, SJ, ANA, ANA, LA, SJ

      ‘Interesting’ is one way to put it… It’s why these games are must wins. Quick is back soon, then LA will be… well LA.

      I guess we cheer for Edmonton tonight? Ugh.

  • Stu Cazz

    As homers we over value our team…fact is Flames are not a very good team…too many average players and inconsistent top players….long ways to go in the rebuild I’m afraid.

    • Scary Gary

      I think a lot of people on here, that don’t necessarily comment often, realize that if we make the playoffs this year it’s a bonus. This is a growing year for the players and GG so that next year when we get rid of some contracts we can hit the ground running.

      What annoys me is when the coach doesn’t put us in the best position to win (no I don’t want him fired WW) and the players fail to show up for the teams we should beat (have a lesser record, on night two of a back to back, are playing a backup goalie or with injuries).

  • John Wayne's Hat

    @Flint: like the comment.

    Re: Chiasson, he is better than Sieloff who we traded him for.

    1st PP: let’s see Gaudreau back on the right side with Brouwer on the left for a one-timer/net presence. Or Wideman for a one-timer (despite all his defensive faults Wides has historically demonstrated good offensive chemistry with Gaudreau). Chiasson off it either way. It seems that unit needs a few more schemes.

  • Just.Visiting

    Things that make me go Hmmmm…..

    If Dennis Wideman were suddenly renamed Dennis “Jones” and making $1MM/year, would he be playing on the top four based on how he’s playing (merit, vs being a high paid veteran)?

    I’m not seeing the offence that is the stated rationale for keeping him in the lineup, and I’m certainly noticing many times a game the defensive deficiencies.

    I think that the team would be improved in the near term by moving him to the box for a little, moving Kulak in with Brodie and putting Brodie back on his preferred side.

    What we know at this stage is that we are at best a bubble team that is very inconsistent and defensively challenged, so I don’t know why we wouldn’t move Kulak back in and try him with Brodie as an experiment.

  • Juan Valdez

    The first goal was a killer because JH was about three feet away from Neil and instead of tying up his stick and trying to make a play he just stood there and let Neil get a point blank shot away.

  • The Sultan

    The Oilers fans talk like they earned McDavid. We scouted, drafted, developed, and guided Gaudreau to become the player he is. He’s an NHL All-Star, 4th round draft pick that’s too small to play hockey.

    Edmonton did absolutely nothing but suck and set records for suckage, and were gifted the next Sidney Crosby. Got the number one overall pick FOUR times which is absolutely absurd and a mockery of professional sports.

    If the Flames had McDavid we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in. If any team had McDavid, they’re instantly better. Which makes it so hard as Flames fans to see him play in Edmonton because out of all the teams, the Oilers deserve it the LEAST.

    And they win a few games and it’s “plan the parade” in typical Edmonton fashion.

  • Lucky 13

    Ari is quite spirited yes? Me thinks she had to moderate the blog ( how many expletives were deleted?) before serving this to us. Take that passion and infuse it into our Flames and we might just make it to postseason.
    Although holding your breath for longer than 4 minutes is never a good thing, which it what our boys tried yesterday… damages something..

    My tv suffered such inexplicable wrath yesterday, that I bought it a new HDMI cable just to apologize. I’m of the opinion it appreciates it. Either that or I definitely held my breath too long last night.

    Good thing we have Scary Gary and the like as voices of reason. They bring me back to reality… thanks fellas .. I sincerely mean that

    Kulak and the expansion draft, not synonymous in my books either. Hiding him?
    Sounds silly when you read it.. that’s because it is. Time for him to stop “riding the pine ” and get into the lineup.

    I finally figured out how not to pull my hair out during each game. If I have 2 props in my hand and chew gum at the same time I’m too distracted from turning my head into a weather map.

    Plus for some reason it helps if I pretend I’m Bob and Doug McKenzie.
    Take off hoser, that’s my beer!

    All in fun, till next game…

  • Derzie

    The coach blows. Our depth sucks. First season I’ve turned off games. After last night’s garbage, GG has an optional practice this morning. That is the definition of ineffective coaching. This is hard to take as a fan of the crest.

  • flames2015

    Played like garbage yesterday and the flames get an optional skate in which 4 skaters and the goalies showed. GG needs to stop acting like their buddy and bag skate them. Get them pissed off and get them to show some damn passion. This inconsistency is brutal. Every game, gio and players talk about slow starts but yet every night its the same damn story.

    • Stu Cazz

      I believe a large portion of the captain’s role is to motivate his team and kick ass if others are not giving it 100%…I wonder how effective Gio is at this……

    • WildfireOne

      Absolutely.
      Everyone sucked from Johnson on out. Where was the puck hunger? Until someone can show “I want it more” they will not deserve the playoffs. The relentless effort up and down the ice is what distinguishes watching playoff hockey from regular season. That lame-ass display would get them killed.

      An optional skate after an effort like last night is not what I’ve observed from successful coaches’ next day response. Sutter would have set up battle drills all day. And Babcock? He would’ve bag skated them. In the dark.

      Gully needs to realize a coach that gets more than what a team feels it’s even capable of is more than just a friend or teacher. He can use a carrot all he wants, but he better use a carrot big enough to double as a stick…