The Calgary Flames faced a team that is unquestionably better than they are. True, it was a team that’s been hit by injuries as of late, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are undeniably better – and it showed.
And yet the Flames were never out of the game. Chad Johnson made sure of it, as did a trio of Mikes and a Matthew. And though they did bend, they didn’t break.
The Penguins may have deserved a better fate in this one. The Flames didn’t let them have it. There are nine teams above .500 in the West, and they’re the last one.
Chad Johnson crushed it
Playing his first game in two weeks, Chad Johnson came out fresh and ready to stop just about every puck that came his way. Sure, that first goal against – which I suppose is being blamed on new goalie pants? – was pretty bad, but the rest of the game he did everything he possibly could.
He had to deal with a Sidney Crosby so close to 1,000 points he could taste it. And Johnson didn’t give him an inch. Rather, it was a matter of quick reacting over a matter of inches that kept him from scoring anything himself, relegated to a single assist.
He saw 33 shots, he stopped 31 of them – plus two attempts in the shootout (with his buddy, the post, bailing him out a couple of times). His .939 save percentage was the best game he’s had since his anemic team couldn’t do much against the New Jersey Devils back on Jan. 13.
Johnson looked burnt out the last time he played; he redeemed himself in this one. And if “win and you’re in” is to stick – and considering how it was implemented right at the time the Flames busted out of their slump, there isn’t much reason to think it won’t – then we can probably expect him back in net for the Coyotes on Feb. 13. He’ll have his own chance to go on a little run.
With the Flames still knocking on the door of a playoff spot and apparently prepared to alternate goalies when one falters – which very well could be the ideal path going forward, considering how both goalies have been used throughout their careers – keeping both Johnson and Brian Elliott may be the way to go this season.
A dominant OT
The Flames got outplayed for most of the game. They scored two goals on the rush – one a takeaway-turned-breakaway, the other some of the most beautiful passing we may ever see – but were often hemmed in their own zone, having trouble establishing anything offensively against a better team.
That’s where Johnson mostly came in, though we saw very little of him in the final frame.
The Flames lost their lead with with just under five minutes to go in the game. They were able to slow the bleeding. And then, once overtime started, they took complete control.
The three-man unit of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and T.J. Brodie is kind of insane when you think about it, in the best way possible. You have three players who are all capable of putting up points, but only at about a half a point per game rate, best case scenario. At the same time, though, you have three players who are so exceptional defensively, you aren’t likely to see them get caught in a bad situation, even with how chaotic three-on-three is. And considering the general prowess that is Crosby, who else would you want out there is such a precarious situation?
Follow that up with Johnny Gaudreau being Johnny Gaudreau with that much space to work with, and it’s a pretty good chance to set him up.
It was Sam Bennett who also shone in overtime, though, first by dancing into the zone to get a scoring chance – and then by drawing a penalty that gave his team every chance to put the game away (and very nearly did, were it not for Matt Murray’s helmet [and let’s be clear, the absolute right call was made on that one]).
That’s back-to-back good games for Bennett. He’s coming along.
The bottom of the ice time barrel
The Flames were pretty clearly split in who had the top roles and who had the bottom ones throughout the game. Backlund and Sean Monahan’s lines were given the most opportunities, which is fitting, considering just how good Backlund’s line has been and how Monahan and Gaudreau look to be turning their games around.
Then you had the bottom two lines, with only Kris Versteeg getting much more than 12 minutes in ice time, mostly thanks to powerplay time.
So for all the freaking out about Alex Chiasson’s ice time – which has been warranted – with the current line construction, it’s been taken care of. It’s unfortunate to see Bennett playing at only a third line level at this stage, but if this is what his development requires, then you do it – and again, we are seeing a positive turnaround in his game.
Meanwhile, even with extremely limited ice time, Micheal Ferland has doubled his number of goals from last season. Then, he shot at just 3.3%; this season, he’s at 12.1%. Like he wasn’t that bad before, he’s probably not this good, but at least he’s making the most of every bit of ice time he’s getting. He’s three points back of where he was last season playing with lower quality linemates.
On the defensive side of things, well…
Let’s keep doing the Dennis Wideman countdown as long as it’s relevant
The Penguins’ second goal.
Yes, they were pressing. And you can’t give a team with that level of talent gifts. But Dennis Wideman made a grossly unsafe play trying to clear the puck up the middle, and it backfired spectacularly.
… Remember when he got ice time in overtime? Granted, it was four-on-four, but still… that’s as precarious a time as you can get, and he… continued to see the ice?
Mark Giordano dominated ice time on the defensive end of the spectrum with 27:50. T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton followed him up with 26:21 and 25:25, respectively. Then Wideman played 20:11.
Who are we fooling here, exactly?
Brett Kulak played 11:07. Not a lot, but he was fine. I can’t fathom why he won’t get more of a chance when we consider the alternatives, though. And yeah, he’s young, inexperienced, and could be prone to making a pretty bad mistake.
But at least for a 23-year-old that’s a learning opportunity. For a 33-year-old, what is that exactly?
Just 26 games to go.
And so the Flames head off for their bye period, and will not play again for another six days. They go out on a high note, and have a rather lax February the rest of the way, with just eight games left this month – and before the trade deadline.
As said at the top, the Flames are the ninth team of nine teams in the West with a points percentage above .500. I don’t think any of the teams below them – Vancouver, Winnipeg, Dallas, Arizona, and Colorado – are threats.
The Kings and the Blues are the immediate wild card targets. They still have their own byes coming up, so the games played disparity won’t be immediately corrected. But as things stand going into the trade deadline, they’re the two to keep an eye on.
Going into the bye, the Flames are on the outside looking in, but are very much in this fight. And that’s without a potential trade deadline upgrade – one hopefully key for the future, because the Flames aren’t in rental position right now at all – to perhaps come.