This is one of those games you absolutely have to win.
The Flames don’t face that many more opponents with sub-.500 records. The NHL is a league in which it’s not really all that difficult to hit .500 – thanks, loser point! – so when you’re in the playoff race and you’re up against a team somehow below that, well, those are two points you cannot afford to give up.
It wasn’t perfect – mostly thanks to T.J. Brodie – but Calgary’s best players showed up, and they picked up another two points they had to have.
Welcome back, Brian Elliott
Do the Flames beat the Bruins if Brian Elliott is healthy and good to go? Maybe they do, because Chad Johnson should have had two or three of the goals he let in. Then again, maybe they don’t, because that’s just the way things go sometimes.
Elliott set a new personal best with his 10th straight win, though, and he had yet another fantastic showing, stopping 24 of 25 shots for a .960 save percentage. He was one unfortunate turnover from picking up his third shutout in four games; regardless, he was absolutely fantastic, just as he has been since about the time the “win and you’re in” philosophy was implemented at the end of January.
His save percentage for the season is now up to .911 – .922 at even strength, which has passed Johnson – and that’s after he got off to one of the worst starts in the NHL. Thank goodness he started to turn things around before the trade deadline, because his return to form is likely the number one thing that has this team back on track. At the rate he’s going at, he may very well hit the .917 overall save percentage he had when he played a relatively high 46 games in the 2014-15 season – and that’s after spending the majority of the season below .900.
The Flames’ goals against per game now sits at 2.66 – 13th in the NHL. Elliott is a major part of that turnaround, and it showed again against the Stars.
One of the best five-men units in the NHL
I don’t think there’s a way to objectively decide who is the best five-man unit in the NHL – I did make an attempt at this and it was, well, incredibly difficult, if not borderline impossible – but in a casual discussion where you only have to cite a bare minimum of facts or numbers, you’d have to think Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Mark Giordano, and Dougie Hamilton are a part of it.
They created every goal for the Flames last night, bringing the team out to a three-goal lead and all-around dominating the game. Backlund’s line has seen some tough competition lately – Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron – but when they don’t have to face elite-caliber opposition like that (which is more common than not; that’s why those guys are elite, because there aren’t many that can compare to them), they pretty much have free reign to dominate.
We already knew what we had in Backlund and Frolik: reliable two-way forwards who could generally be counted on to handle tough situations and score at least half a point per game throughout the season. We had a tentative knowledge of Giordano: a Norris-caliber defenceman whose best days hopefully aren’t completely behind him, but probably are. We had an inkling on Hamilton: a young defenceman with elite offensive potential who was likely to come into his own sooner rather than later.
We did not know, at all, what we had with Tkachuk. The third goal in particular – Giordano’s – showed an awareness and an intelligence well beyond his years. At this point, we’re facing the same question we did with Johnny Gaudreau after his rookie season: Can he keep this up? He’s only going to get better, right? Just what comes next? It’s going to be great.
Could’ve had more
The Flames scored three goals, which usually isn’t a bad showing, but Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were severely snakebit, and had a ton of glorious chances of their own that just couldn’t go in.
Gaudreau, in particular, with multiple chances for breakaways, the best being one in which Kari Lehtonen just held so firm to the post that Gaudreau ended up in the net instead of the puck.
The Flames still don’t have a 50-point scorer on the roster – though Backlund has joined Gaudreau at the 49-point mark – but they’re close. Considering how the team’s top scorers currently have 49, 49, 46, 46, and 46 points, it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll end up with five 50+ point scorers – maybe even six if Frolik, who’s sixth in team scoring with 42 points, can have a couple of big nights before the season ends.
I do think it is at least somewhat worrying the Flames couldn’t close this out with a bigger statement – the Stars were a sub-.500 team on the second of a back-to-back and missing one of their best players in Jamie Benn – but you can’t fault them for the effort. Sometimes the pucks just go in, sometimes they don’t, but damn if they didn’t try (and help bump their goal differential back up a bit while they were at it).
The Bennett-Stajan switch
So Sam Bennett got demoted. Or, considering Troy Brouwer was removed from his line, maybe he got promoted?
Not even a full season and we’re already at this point, eh?
This was a game you couldn’t really judge based on ice time – if you were, then Monahan was the fourth line centre, which we all know is not actually the case – but you can probably, overall, name which line is which based on who’s playing on it. For example, Gaudreau’s line is generally assumed to be the first line (though with Tkachuk and company’s play, that’s debatable, but then at worst he’s on the second line). So whichever line Lance Bouma is on is the fourth line, right?
All contracts being equal, who would you prefer to have: Bouma or Brouwer?
When Bennett was with Bouma and Alex Chiasson – which was most of the game – he was a +50% 5v5 CF player. When he was with Kris Versteeg, he was a 50% guy. When he was with Brouwer, he sat at 25%.
When Stajan was with Versteeg and Brouwer, he was on the ice for one corsi event for – something Brouwer is awfully familiar with by now. Not that he fared any better with Bouma and Chiasson, but hey, an even smaller sample size there.
The point here being that seemingly the only way to escape Brouwer’s toxicity is for him to simply go on a different line. It’d be one thing if he was scoring; he’s not. It’d be one thing if he was defensively responsible; he’s not. But he threw seven hits I guess, so, yay…?
I’d much prefer to see a Versteeg – Bennett – Chiasson line, but that saddles Stajan with Bouma and Brouwer, and it’s just a mess.
Time to get real
The Flames had to have this game against the Stars because it was one of the last few “gimme” games they’re going to have.
We’re entering the part of the season where it’s pretty much full throttle. There are 11 games to go; seven are against divisional opponents. Two are against potential wild cards. That’s nine against direct opponents for a place in the playoff standings, and giving up points to any of those guys is going to hurt way more than surrendering two to the Bruins ever will.
The other two games? The best in the NHL – the Capitals – and the worst – the Avalanche. Those don’t have the potential to be four-point swings. The other nine do.
It’s going to be a wild finish.