The Flames were going through a small slump of having third period leads, and then no longer playing. So if the solution is to fall behind, but with just enough time left over to score enough goals to win…
Tkachuk can do it all
I think this is the part we have to remember that this is only Matthew Tkachuk’s second season in the NHL. He turned 20 years old two months ago. The word “kid” gets thrown around a lot in professional sports but, even though he’s the youngest member of the Flames, he’s also one of the best.
The Flames had four powerplays, and three of them were because of Tkachuk. He has drawn 38 penalties this season: the most across the entire NHL, tied with Tom Wilson. However, unlike Wilson, who has taken 37 penalties, Tkachuk has only taken 15. (He’s also been suspended twice, but it was for really stupid offences that appear to have been easy to remove from his game.)
Not only did he help the Flames with getting powerplay opportunities, but he had six shots, and also so happened to score two goals. (Kind of funny that the one goal he didn’t score was a result of one of the penalties he drew.) They were both skilled goals, at that: perfect deflections that left Jaroslav Halak – who had been having a really good game – completely helpless.
With that, this is Tkachuk’s first 20-goal season. He’s on pace for 30 goals and 58 points. He’s a keeper, but we already knew that.
Special teams win
Scoring a powerplay goal certainly helps. The Flames’ man advantage came through, giving them a much-needed boost as they finally got on the board. Even though the Islanders took a two-goal lead, it wasn’t necessarily deserved; Halak really had just done a great job of thwarting the Flames earlier.
Though it didn’t come courtesy of the top unit, I do feel it should once again be pointed out how much better the man advantage actually looks with Dougie Hamilton on the top unit. He isn’t content to pass the puck around the perimeter; he actually shoots it and, in doing so, at least creates rebound opportunities. If the powerplay can just stop killing the Flames’ momentum and start looking threatening it’ll be a massive step in the right direction, and he’s doing just that.
Of note: Hamilton had five shots total, and played the second most on the powerplay, with 5:47. Only Johnny Gaudreau overshadowed him there: nine shots, 6:04. And his start to the tic-tac-goal got him his 66th point of the season, which puts him alone in second place in NHL scoring, three back of the top spot, and on pace for 97 points. Remember the really old days of “but Gaudreau is too small to make the NHL”? They were so cute.
Of course, this all could have easily gone wrong; the Flames were fortunate to kill off all five penalties that they faced. Mikael Backlund took two, which is getting increasingly painful; he has 62 penalty minutes this season, dwarfing his previous career high of 36 from the year before. Something is out of hand there. Meanwhile, the patented Sam Bennett offensive zone penalty struck again.
It is kind of wild that the Flames managed 42 shots even though they had to spend one-sixth of the game killing penalties, though. It’s the second game in a row the Flames have surrendered five powerplay opportunities, and the 14th time this season they’ve had to try to kill five-plus.
Poor Ryan Lomberg: energy guy who’s only going to maintain a hold on an NHL spot by going out there, being extremely tough and potentially punching above his weight class, only to have his night ended just two minutes in for it. The fourth line doesn’t get too many minutes to begin with, but they did get some extra twirls with Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Garnet Hathaway. (One of these things isn’t quite like the others.)
With Lomberg apparently not too badly hurt, but Troy Brouwer still out for a while yet, it’s worth remembering that Marek Hrivik is the only extra healthy forward the Flames have, should they not call anybody up.
The bigger injury concern is, of course, Mike Smith. Smith let in two goals that weren’t great, but he also had decent excuses (wasn’t expecting the turnover, screened). If only there had been some way to perhaps recognize that a guy who turns 36 years old next month and yet has still started the most games in the NHL despite what looks to be a capable backup right there could maybe get injured at some point.
That isn’t entirely fair; I’m not a medical professional and we don’t know just how bad Smith’s injury is. Again, as someone without any real knowledge of the situation, I even wonder if Michael Frolik missing the empty net ultimately resulted in Smith’s injury or if it was just bound to happen at the rate he’s been playing (if not this game, then the next one, or whatever you will). Remember, this isn’t even the first time he’s been injured this season; he’s been bumped and had trouble standing up multiple times, and left a game against the Blues after 20 minutes and missed the subsequent Red Wings game before returning.
But it does still beg the point that the Flames are well aware they can’t start Smith every game, and yet apparently the only time David Rittich can draw in is if it’s a back-to-back situation. At some point Rittich is going to have to get more starts. And there may be no time like the present.
It’s really not ideal, but could be something of a blessing in disguise. Let Rittich prove he can handle a larger workload. Get your number one goalie some actual rest and recovery. Worst case scenario, Smith’s season is over; best case, he’s totally fine and the Flames can resume driving him into the ground next game. Hopefully it’s somewhere in the middle, and Rittich will prove he’s up to the task in the meantime. It’s got to happen eventually.