I hope you guys enjoyed Mike the past couple of post-game mornings. It’s really difficult to figure out how to write essentially the same post over and over and over.
Here’s the thing with this one: as soon as Montreal scored their first goal, you knew the game was over.
It was the exact same story as the game against the Leafs the day before. The Flames played a good opening period. Not a great one, not an all-world one, but one that was good enough. And then, with a minute to go in the period, they got scored on, and were effectively broken from thereon out.
The Flames are not this bad of a team. They’re not a great team, but they aren’t a “get outscored 20-7 in their last four games” team, either. They are going through an absolutely terrible stretch right now – possibly worse than they were at the start of the season – and it’s pretty brutal to watch.
But that’s what this is. A stretch.
Unfortunately, this isn’t yet good enough of a team to be able to afford a stretch like this. This has been a bubble team from the start of the season that has experienced catastrophic lows that will ultimately knock it square out of a playoff spot. They’d have more of a fighting chance if they didn’t seem so hellbent on bottoming out on repeated nadirs.
… Or something to that effect.
But it’s a four-game stretch, maybe.
Internally, someone – I think it was Christian Roatis – wondered if the Flames’ 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks earlier this month broke them. I’d been wondering the same myself, because that was a game they absolutely deserved to have. They’d been playing well overall prior to, and including, that game. Since then they’ve had maybe two good games (against the Sharks and Panthers), and that’s it.
And I’m far from a sports psychologist, or a psychologist of any kind. And I don’t know any of these players, obviously. But there was a chord in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts that struck me.
In them, #23 read:
Backlund’s having a terrific year. How many meetings has he had with his coach? “I think two,” Backlund responded. “It was different with (Mike Keenan, Brent Sutter and Bob Hartley). But don’t forget I was younger then. I probably needed it more.”
And immediately after, #24:
Argue all you want about plus-minus and whether it is a legitimate marker of a player’s ability, but there’s no questioning some believe in it. One is Johnny Gaudreau, who has never been a minus player over a full season. (Oldest results I could find dated back to 2010–11 with USHL Dubuque.) He’s at minus-17 this season and it bothers him — a ton. I think the Flames are trying to convince him to say, “Let’s work on it game-by-game, rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture,” but it’s weighing on him.
Mikael Backlund says he has learned. Johnny Gaudreau is stressing out over a single stat that has been meaningful to him his entire career. Backlund has played eight years in this league and has been constantly challenged (sometimes unfairly, sometimes not), but is now playing pretty much the best hockey of his life.
Gaudreau is in his third professional year and after having seemingly played the best hockey of his life throughout his, well, life, he has finally hit a wall, and he seemingly doesn’t know what to do about it. So he suffers and struggles and as one of the most important players on the team already, just about everyone else suffers and struggles along with him. That doesn’t mean he’s done or washed up – it means he’s young and learning how to deal with this new reality.
Full disclosure: I’m right in between Backlund and Gaudreau in age; those of you older or younger may have a different line of thought on this than I do. But the contrast was pretty striking, to me.
I remember absolutely coasting throughout my school years. Double curriculum since I was four, no problem. I was never stressed, nothing was too hard, I was a goddamn queen at academia and nothing could faze me.
Pre-IB Science 10 fazed me. Hard. There was more than one mental break. I had no idea how to cope with it and for the first time in my life I had to fight to even scratch the surface of acceptable. I couldn’t figure out what went wrong or what changed and suffered immensely for it. But at some point, things clicked and I went with physics (which was the very subject that broke me) and it wasn’t so hard anymore. I had to work harder, sure, but it wasn’t disastrous.
And it prepared me for when I hit the wall that was IB Calculus. There were no mental breaks – a lot of angry venting, yes, but nothing as bad as it had been before – but that time I was prepared to cope with the idea of struggling and I did. I’m sure I hit walls in school after, but I can’t remember them as clearly as those two because by that time I had been challenged and learned how to deal with it.
My point here is this: for as happy as we are that most of the Flames’ core is pretty young, that’s going to come with its own set of struggles, and we are seeing them manifest big time right now.
Gaudreau constantly overcame his size and he could do it because he could always score; this season is the first time he’s ever been injured and it’s been about a month since his last consistent scoring streak. Sean Monahan was flat out the guy on his junior club and made the Flames immediately, scoring 20 goals from the get-go; he’s going to have to fight to hit 50 points this year. Sam Bennett had first overall talent and was a healthy scratch for the first time in his life.
Dougie Hamilton is one of the few that’s playing consistently well; he was challenged throughout all of last season. I’m wondering if that’s not quite a coincidence.
Not everyone is going to operate on the same plain, but when it rains, it pours. I know some don’t like this word but the Flames have been downright unlucky as of late. They’ve had bad goaltending through most of the month and their own high quality chances aren’t going in. They’re not this bad of a team as a whole – but you’ve got a lot of key players on this team who seem to be hitting walls for the first times in their hockey-playing careers and it’s messing with them. Your golden opportunity didn’t go in, you turned the puck over, now it’s in the back of your net and you are just done, this game is over, there is no coming back from this and you are a failure and it is hopeless and there is no point and you turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(That doesn’t necessarily explain just standing around on a five-on-three, but hey, sometimes you’re also just not that good to begin with.)
And here’s the thing with the veterans: of all of the ones the Flames have at this point in time, Mark Giordano is the only one you could ever really say played at an elite level at any point in his career. I’m sure Matt Stajan and Deryk Engelland will do their best to motivate everyone but they simply aren’t that good to drag up a whole team with them. The ones that are are the kids. (And Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, but they’re roughly .5 point-per-game guys, so they can’t do it themselves every game.)
See, I wouldn’t mind if they were losing games but playing the way they did in that 4-2 loss to the Canucks, or the 2-1 shootout loss to the Oilers. Those were genuinely good games they put up that had unideal results. And it’s going to happen; life isn’t fair and sometimes you don’t win even when you deserve to.
But when you let it break you that hard, you get these past four games. You get failures in every sense of the word.
You played a good first period and one mistake ended up in your own net and you let it break you.
At some point, they will stop letting it break them.
And when that happens – combined with a smart offseason that will hopefully see them gain the few pieces they are missing – they will be the better for it. Now, it’s just a matter of learning how to cope.