The Flames weren’t perfect in this one. Far from it, in fact. But they were much better than they were against the Kings. For one thing, an attempt at playing hockey was made; for another; it was successful.
At worst, it was entertaining. At best, well, their season has officially been extended.
There’s the missing piece
Throughout the entire season, everyone outside of the 3M line couldn’t be found. The Flames weren’t just a bad team – they were a team completely incapable of doing much of anything, supported by just one line and nothing more.
Bit by bit, they started coming back. Johnny Gaudreau found his scoring touch. So did Sean Monahan. Chad Johnson and then, much later, Brian Elliott found their games. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton underwent a revelation once they were partnered. T.J. Brodie had a mini one when Michael Stone was acquired. Micheal Ferland sealed the deal.
That gave the Flames two functional lines, two defence pairings, and at least one goalie.
But there’s been a conspicuous absence the entire season: Sam Bennett, the highest draft pick in Flames franchise history, was struggling, big time.
For a long time, he’s been that one last piece. “Just imagine this team when Bennett gets going” was the gist of things – that is, when people weren’t flirting with the idea of trading him because he was underwhelming at the time. (Remember when people wanted to trade Gaudreau, too? So fickle.)
That’s not to say Bennett is officially back, resuming his play from the 2015 playoffs, but that this game was a reminder of what we should be able to look forward to – and evidence that it may not be as far out of reach as originally thought.
Bennett had a phenomenal game. He only scored two points – a empty net goal and an assist – but it felt like it should have been more. He played a hard-nosed, physical game that also displayed incredible hands and vision: his assist on Gaudreau’s goal a prime example of the skill he finally reminded us he’s capable of.
Dammmnnnnnnn Sammy and Johnny
— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) April 1, 2017
On that note…
Versteeg – Bennett – Chiasson or bust
The Flames still have four regular season games left, and they may not have the opportunity to reunite the line that formed in the second period thanks to lingering injuries.
You know that’s probably not going to be the case during the playoffs, though. The playoffs are when everyone who’s able steps into the lineup and gives it his all then and there. And there’s a pretty big difference between “resting banged up players” and “season-ending torn bicep”.
But when the Flames return to their full lineup later in April, Versteeg – Bennett – Chiasson absolutely has to be their third line.
Is it an elite line? Of course not. But it’s a functional one Bennett can work with. Before, his regular left winger was Lance Bouma. Bouma got into a fight, so Gaudreau slotted in for the time being, and we got that extremely gorgeous goal. That goal does not happen if Bouma is on Bennett’s wing. There’s only so much you can ask one guy to do.
Bennett and Kris Versteeg were showing some chemistry before Versteeg ended up on a line with Matt Stajan and Troy Brouwer. Brouwer did not exactly show much in the way of chemistry himself. Bennett does, however, perform with Alex Chiasson on the penalty kill – and they do a pretty decent job of it.
It’s the low-rent Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland line. Versteeg is a vastly inferior Gaudreau. Chiasson is an inferior Micheal Ferland. The gap between Bennett and Sean Monahan isn’t there like it is for the wingers. But there are similarities in the wingers’ games – a playmaker, an intelligent big body – that it’s really no wonder they were able to click. And it’s this combination that gives the Flames a functional third line.
That’s not to say all problems are immediately solved – it’s only been one game, after all – but this team absolutely needs Bennett to get going and that line was the most alive Bennett has looked all season. There’s no excuse to not keep it together, especially when it had such immediate success.
Not everyone can go at once
The 3M line, the line we (and, more importantly, Glen Gulutzan) can usually rely on, had a rough night. They had to face Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns, though: pretty tough orders, and not an assignment they’re going to win every time.
Which is why it was so important to see Bennett’s line click. Gaudreau and friends did an excellent job creating chances, but what helped the Flames win this one was actually their depth. The other three lines got on the board in one way or another. So while Mikael Backlund was facing Pavelski, Bennett was facing Mikkel Boedker.
It’s a team game. Not everyone on the team is going to fire on all cylinders. But if they can set it up so just enough of them are – as they did in this one – they’ll be fine.
The Flames hanged on for the first period, and rode an excellent second to victory. They faced a tough challenge in the third – because they had a three-goal lead over an increasingly desperate team playing on the second half of a back-to-back that suddenly sees itself in very real danger of falling into a wild card spot. They didn’t have to gun it like the Sharks did; their forward depth had already taken care of it.
Last line of defence
That’s not to say the Flames had a perfect game. They really, really did not. They gave up four powerplays, surrendered nearly 40 shots on net, and were badly outplayed in every stat – from a 74-54 corsi deficiency to 17-12 in high danger scoring chances.
And that’s why you have a goalie.
Brian Elliott, who put on his latest phenomenal show, stopped 36 of 38 shots for a .947 save percentage. His .912 overall save percentage isn’t exactly incredible, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the .800 numbers he was spotting through much of the season (not to mention he’s tied with Tuukka Rask and Ben Bishop). At even strength, he’s sitting at .921.
With a playoff spot clinched, you have to think Chad Johnson gets at least one more start in the regular season. But it’s Elliott who’s proven throughout this season that he’s the one who’s capable of stealing games – and if it comes down to it, potentially a series, too.
60 points achieved
Gaudreau teamed up with Bennett for an extremely pretty goal, and in doing so scored his 60th point of the season.
He missed 10 games due to a broken finger. He’s still ended up claiming his spot as the Flames’ leading scorer – and has ensured that in every NHL season he’s played, he’s scored at least 60 points. He’ll need another four to match his rookie total, and two more goals to hit 20. Think he’ll make it?
Monahan is two points away from 60, and these two will likely be the Flames’ only 60+ point scorers, barring something absolutely wild happening. Dougie Hamilton is still one point away from 50; Matthew Tkachuk three points away from that tally. They have four games to achieve it: both doable, but we’re starting to get a little close to the wire, here.
In the end, though? After a horrible start to the season, the Flames’ scoring leaders are looking an awful lot like we would have guessed at the start – with some pleasant surprises mixed in to offset just how long it took to get going.
Hopefully all of this is a sign of what’s to come.