Think back to the start of the season. The Flames were just about on the verge of taking the next step, and with a new coach – and oh, we really hoped Brad Treliving had gotten this hire right – it was time for the Flames to show serious signs of improvement.
They were borderline unwatchable, and the season was sunk. You simply can’t be that bad and think you have a chance at the playoffs, even that early on. The chances of coming back are pretty slim.
Well, the Flames appear to have come back. And from those early days of calling for Glen Gulutzan’s head, the Flames are, dare I say, rather fun to watch now.
Of course, the winning helps.
Now imagine a full season of this with a probably better roster. No poor start, because they’ll be used to the coach’s systems; hopefully no mental breakdowns, either, because they’re playing better than their January selves, too. That’s something to look forward to next season. In the meantime, this is growth.
It would have been understandable for the Flames to lose this one. Not desirable – as much as a gap they’re starting to put between themselves and the Kings, they still need all the points they can get – but a back-to-back on the road is an understandable loss.
The Flames scored early, though. And often. This wasn’t one of those games in which they try and try and try and simply get beat by a hot goalie, which was happening just last week; this time, they got the goals they needed.
And is it any wonder why? I’m really loving NaturalStatTrick’s new heat map feature, so here’s this game’s:
The Flames had a much more concentrated net-front presence this game, which resulted in pretty much all of their goals. Sam Bennett cashed in on a rebound. Mikael Backlund got one coming straight down the middle unchecked. Deryk Engelland and friends’ crease-crashing paid off. And Troy Brouwer was just about in the blue paint. Four goals, most right on top of a helpless Roberto Luongo.
Score effects definitely played their role in this one; once the Flames made it 4-2, they pretty much fell off. Which is fair: this is a marathon, not a sprint. They got themselves the lead they needed in a tough situation, and that was good enoguh.
Remember in January, when the Flames kept giving up the first goal and then would just keep folding? The Panthers scored before the Flames got a single corsi event. Didn’t seem to bother them this time. Doesn’t seem to bother them all that much lately.
Chad Johnson did the rest
Chad Johnson was the Flames’ freshest player. It’s been Brian Elliott’s net the past couple of games, and rightfully so; that said, you don’t really want a goalie playing twice in a back-to-back, so the logical move was made to go back to Johnson.
After all, it’s not like the Flames don’t have two capable goalies on their hands. Something of a disappointing season, sure, but lately they’ve been providing play this team can win with.
And on the second of a back-to-back, with four goals scored and a tired team, Johnson got to work, and bailed out everyone in front of him. He stopped 36 of 38 shots as the Panthers got ever-increasingly desperate to score again, and didn’t give them an inch after the first period.
When you factor in special teams, that’s when the Flames really got killed corsi-wise – 39.08%, as opposed to the 46.97% they registered at 5v5. One of the goals Johnson gave up came on the powerplay; that was it. Otherwise, he did really, really well, and stepped up when it was needed.
So who starts the next game? Both Elliott and Johnson posted good efforts in Florida, and you don’t want to wear either one out.
In the grand scheme of things, though, the next game isn’t quite as important. The game against the Los Angeles Kings right after is. It’ll be interesting to see who gets that particular net.
A love letter to Mikael Backlund
Backlund has repeatedly been disrespected throughout his time as a Flame. He’s generally always been outstanding defensively and possession-wise, but he never really got quite the opportunity to showcase his skills, both due to how he was used – remember when he centred Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopoulos? – and because he kept falling victim to injury.
But since he played the lockout in Sweden, he’s been, at worst, a .5 point-per-game guy.
He now has 44 points in 62 games. He’s leading the team in scoring, still. He’s three points away from his career high. He’s on pace for 58 points. He could legitimately potentially crack 60 this year – and he had no offensive zone starts in this game.
His line was 0% in OZS. They scored two goals (though Backlund only had the one point to show for his efforts). Backlund is not getting any help whatsoever, other than the form of linemates who for once aren’t fourth liners, and he’s crushing it. Again.
It’s amazing what can happen when you give players who deserve it a chance. This team is nowhere without Backlund, and they can’t afford to lose him under any circumstances. Not that I’m privy to locker room dynamics, but how he doesn’t have a letter on his jersey is beyond me.
See what happens with a properly balanced lineup?
When’s the last time you heard someone complain about Alex Chiasson? I guess the spearing incident?
He played just 9:48 against the Panthers, including some penalty kill time. That was the least among Flames forwards. He wasn’t a detriment in that position at all; quite frankly, it’s where he belongs.
Remember that’s where he started the season, too? The Flames’ original fourth line was Bouma – Stajan – Chiasson. It got distorted along the way, poor combinations were attempted, and now we’re back. Chiasson is making fourth line money, he’s doing well in the role, and calls for his head seem to have ceased.
It’s like with Backlund: put your players in a position to succeed. Some can do more than others. But if everyone’s playing their role, chances are you’re gonna be fine.
Sam Bennett is someone else in this situation. We’d like to see more out of him, but he’s been getting scoring chances these past couple of games. It was only a matter of time before one finally went in for him. He played solid third line minutes behind Backlund and Sean Monahan; it’s paying off.
So say Treliving is able to get the forward he’s reportedly looking for at the deadline. Whether that forward takes over on Gaudreau and Monahan’s line and bumps Micheal Ferland to Bennett’s, or even joins Bennett’s directly instead, the Flames have the potential for a pretty decent top nine with an operational fourth line. (This also speaks on not wasting roster spots with goons. If they can’t take a regular shift, they shouldn’t be there. It’s been nice to see from the Flames this season.)
There is so much to start getting excited about here. Backlund’s line, nobody has to worry about. When all the kids get going, well.
Just a bit of premature musing
The Flames currently have a points percentage of .548, eighth in the West. The Blues and Predators are both at .558. One of those Central teams is guaranteed to make the playoffs; if the Kings keep doing what they’re doing, then they both very well might.
The four games the Flames still have against the Kings are probably going to be what decides the season – but considering how well the Flames have played this past week, let’s take a moment and dream a little bigger. Why not? If everyone continues to click…
The Flames are six points back of the Oilers and Ducks with the same number of games played. There’s a lot of season to go, but I think it’s worth entertaining the possibility the Flames won’t be a wild card team. If just one of those two falters down the stretch and the Flames keep rolling, it’s entirely possible they end up top three in the division.
It could even be a first round Battle of Alberta.
If that happens, man, I dunno, I’ll be praying for the comments section.
Still lots of season to go. They’re going to lose games again, too. But this is much more like the team I expected back in October – and it’s good to see this team still has a chance.