Coming into this series, my thought was if the Flames lose Game 1, they lose the series. Seems melodramatic, but given what history has shown us at the Honda Center – and what we saw during the season series – if the Flames couldn’t somehow use the element of surprise and pull one over on the Ducks in Game 1, they’d have no hope to win again in Anaheim, or advance to the next round.
The Flames did indeed lose Game 1, but the game itself caused me to change my line of thinking. They are anything but dead in the water (or the pond).
The Flames had an excellent chance of taking the series lead, but shot themselves in both feet en route to a 3-2 Game 1 loss to the Ducks. However, unlike my theory that the Flames would be need to catch the Ducks sleeping to have any hope of victory, their near win came against an Anaheim squad that was ready to play, and seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Despite this, the Flames controlled 52% of the possession at even strength, and despite surrendering seven (!!!) power plays, split all situations possession even at 50%. The Ducks just blocked more shots, thus their lead on the shot clock when the game ended.
Though down 0-1 in this best-of-seven set, I believe the Flames are anything but out of it, and here are five – optimistically out-of-character for FN – reasons why.
1. Stupid mistakes can be eliminated
I’m wary to think that had the Flames not surrendered that deflating 3-on-0 tying goal off the moronic line change, the Ducks would’ve still had their back-to-back power plays resulting in the eventual go-ahead goal by Jakob Silfverberg. Both penalties were as a result of the Flames being on their heels and their over-anxiousness to try and avenge the terrible line change – in Bouma’s case with overaggressive play. Before the tying goal, the ice had been tilted in Calgary’s favour quite significantly.
When you lose a game due to a mental lapse such as that now infamous line change, it does more than just leave a sour taste in your mouth. It tells you that outside said lapse, you had the game won. The Flames not only hung in with the Ducks, but they outplayed them for a number of stretches. Unlike 2015 when they were blown of the pond in Game 1, last night looked anything but a David vs. Goliath matchup. The Flames can take the Ducks, and could’ve easily been up 1-0 instead of down that.
2. Flames were the better team in Game 1
Continuing off reason one, the Flames were the better team at even strength, coming away with an aforementioned 52% possession rate. Not bad for an underdog.
What’s more is despite the seven power plays surrendered and Anaheim’s incredible dominance on them, possession in all situations worked out to even, 50-50.
The Flames’ speed and puck movement was at times too much for the Ducks to handle, and resulted in Grade-A chances that they just couldn’t bury. In the third period alone, the top line (which was the Flames’ best) had three marvelous opportunities, including Gaudreau’s last-ditch rebound chance that met the pad of John Gibson. It has been proven time and time again, if you continue generating high quality scoring chances, they will eventually start going in.
If the Flames continue to generate opportunities in the manner they did in Game 1, the goals will come and the wins will follow. Can they, though? Given this team’s wild inconsistencies this season, I would suggest that’s anything but a certainty, but the fact they were able to generate said chances against Carlyle’s supposed suffocating defence is a positive.
3. Brian Elliott was the better goalie
Taking nothing away from John Gibson who was brilliant when he needed to be; Brian Elliott picked up where he left off in the second half of the season, and kept the Flames in it after the two quick goals in the second period. The Ducks had a handful of glorious chances to pad their lead, but Elliott was up to the task every time. In fact, the three goals surrendered by Elliot came off a 3-on-0 (still can’t believe this happened in a National Hockey League game) and two deflections from his own defenseman, one of which happened a foot in front of him, and the other was a shot that grazed through the legs of Michael Stone trying to block the shot in front of the net. No chance on any of them.
Elliott was calm, collected, and looked much like the man who stole a first round series win from the Chicago Blackhawks just one spring ago. Elliott being on the top his game was a necessary ingredient for any Flames upset scenario, and as long as he remains there, the Flames have a shot in every game.
John Gibson at the other end made a number of highlight reel saves, but struggled with his rebound control all night. There were at least half a dozen plays where a Gibson rebound landed comfortably in the low slot, staring at an empty net, with no white jerseys in the vicinity to bang it home. Both Flames goals came off redirections in front, but if they make driving the net a priority, they can exploit what is a really blatant weakness in Gibson’s game right now.
4. 3M line has yet to show up
On most nights this season when the Flames came out on top in the possession game, it was the 3M line leading the charge.
Thursday was not one of those nights. Frolik, Backlund and Tkachuk were three of the Flames’ four worst possession forwards at even strength, getting buried by the Ryan Getzlaf line.
On the one hand, if the Flames can’t stop Getzlaf and the 3M line isn’t a factor in the series, it’ll be tough to emerge victorious.
But on the other, the Flames still managed to come out on top possession-wise without one of the NHL’s best possession lines. 3M hasn’t had many off-nights over the course of the season, and they’ve generally rebounded when they have. Furthermore, in the regular season, Backlund’s CF% against Getzlaf was 52% and GF% was 75%, so hoping there exists legitimate grounds to hope for a bounce back.
If Backlund and company can rebound from a putrid performance in the Game 1 and at least hang with the Getzlaf line, the Flames could theoretically begin dominating the Ducks. The Monahan line beat the heads in of the Kesler line – which they were matched up with most of the night – while Bennett’s group exchanged chances with the Vermette/Perry line reasonably well (losing the possession battle, slightly) and the Flames’ fourth unit ran roughshod over the Ducks’ fourth line.
If the 3M line gets going and the Flames are consistently outmatching three quarters of the Ducks’ forward core – or at least not getting absolutely killed like 3M did in Game 1 – you have to like their chances moving forward.
5. The Flames did it without two of their top offensive engines
3M weren’t the only ones who struggled, as both Johnny Gaudreau and Dougie Hamilton – the Flames’ most important offensive drivers at forward and defence respectively – looked wildly uncomfortable and trepid all night.
Though Gaudreau’s line dominated, Johnny Hockey was kept to the outside for most of it and looked anything but dangerous. Gaudreau at his most effective is spreading the ice out, dodging in and out of traffic to find soft spots and trying to make something happen every shift.
In Game 1 however, he seemed allergic to the puck at times, passing it off quickly. When in possession of it, he would spin and twirl in a little corner of the ice, along the boards, seemingly afraid to take it to the middle. I’m sure a team like the Ducks are intimidating for someone of Gaudreau’s size, but he needs to trust the footwork and skill that his kept him out of countless collisions to this point of his career, and get back to the dynamic playmaker he can be. Being the fiercely competitive person he is, I think we can expect a more involved showing in Game 2.
Hamilton on the other hand took three penalties and like Gaudreau seemed reluctant to engage in any physical play, disposing of the puck quickly as not to invite any contact. Two of the penalties were trips on plays where he could’ve angled his man off and finished him with a check. I dare say it looked like he was protecting an injury.
Regardless, both Hamilton and Gaudreau are keys to the Flames’ success and will no doubt be eager to avenge poor showings in the series opener.
The Flames’ power play – which could’ve sent the game to overtime in the dying minutes in Game 1 – would also benefit greatly from bounce back games from Hamilton and Gaudreau.
To conclude, the Flames were the better hockey team in Game 1, but sunk themselves with stupid penalties and one moronic brainfart of a change. Not only where they the better team, but they did it with off-nights from their best line, their best forward and arguably their best defenseman.
To some, the struggles of the Flames’ most important pieces may be worrisome, but to me it was cause for optimism. The Flames not only showed they can hang with the Ducks at the Honda Centre but also left themselves huge room for improvement. To me that’s a far better spot to be in then playing a perfect game and still losing.
Unlike two years ago, we head into an all but must-win Game 2 knowing that with improved efforts from a few key pieces and a little more discipline, returning to Calgary with a series split is anything but a pipe dream, and the Flames, though down in the series, are anything but out of it.