There’s no such thing as playing a game really, truly perfectly through all 60 minutes, but the Flames came pretty close. Sure, there were things to nitpick, but the overwhelming goodness that was everything else – from special teams to rookies proving they belong – overshadows all of that.
If this is who the Flames are, we’re in for a great year.
Feel of the game
Though it took the better part of the first period to score, the Flames were in the game right from the beginning. The Predators should be considered a formidable opponent, with all their playoff success the past few seasons, and a major test for the Flames early on – and it’s one they ended up passing with flying colours.
Elias Lindholm continues to endear himself to his new fanbase, not just through virtue of apparently being exactly the player the top line has been missing all this time, but by being that long-coveted effective right shot on the powerplay. Noted goal scorer Sean Monahan is back, and Johnny Gaudreau remains a wizard with the puck. The Flames’ high end talent showed up when it counted, and that isn’t even counting all of the effort from other players who weren’t quite as lucky.
The game could have gone completely off the rails when the Predators were awarded a full two-minute five-on-three powerplay not long after the Flames took a two-goal lead. It would have been so easy for them to fold; instead, they were tenacious on the penalty kill – Mikael Backlund in particular – and Mike Smith stood tall and firm whenever he was called upon – which, considering the early lead the Flames jumped out to, was rather frequent over the rest of the game.
Perhaps the best part of it all? The Flames scored early in the third period to further their cushion – 3-0 is pretty difficult to come back from in just a little under 20 minutes – but they didn’t really play preventative defence; they kept trying to score. This is a fun team to watch when they want to be. Last night proved it.
The good news
Gaudreau had a three-point night, giving him seven points on the year thus far, tied for fifth in the league. He’s an absolute magician, and apparently the only player who can be trusted to consistently enter the zone on the powerplay. He responded to being stood up at the line by dancing his way through and setting up a goal later on. He’s still just as good as ever.
Monahan’s two goals have given him four on the year, putting him in a tie for fourth league-wide. Yes, it’s early; yes, I’m going to keep looking at these numbers until they inevitably drop off… if they ever do.
It’s only been three games, but how much has Lindholm been the missing piece to the puzzle? His four points have him fourth in team scoring, but this is a guy who has consistently been good for about 40 points a season for four years now, and he’s probably playing with the most offensively talented linemates he’s ever had. Sure, he’s hot now, and we’ll have to see how he one day responds to adversity in a Flames uniform, but it’s easy to see a career season coming up. Micheal Ferland was great, but not good enough to keep it up consistently; instead, this is starting to feel a bit more like Jiri Hudler’s 2014-15 season with the Flames, when he was the perfect winger for Gaudreau and Monahan.
From his backchecking to his between-the-legs moves to his sheer tenacity, Matthew Tkachuk might actually be the perfect hockey player.
Dillon Dube looks like he belongs. Juuso Valimaki looks like he belongs. Rasmus Andersson looks like he belongs. Dube’s ice time shot up, and Valimaki and Andersson were trusted to stay together as a rookie defensive pairing on the road the entire game – and Valimaki even got to help kill a lengthy five-on-three. The kids are living up to the strong vote in confidence they’re getting.
Two powerplay goals! In one game!! The Flames’ powerplay went two-for-four and their penalty kill was a perfect four-for-four.
Mike Smith looked like his impressive self we saw when he first put on a Flames jersey one year ago. If he can keep doing that, then that’s one major worry for the Flames nullified. At the very least, it’s good to know he still has it in him.
The bad news
Austin Czarnik looks amazing on a line with Backlund and Tkachuk. The only problem with their line is they aren’t scoring on their chances, but it has to come at some point – that trio is constantly buzzing.
Still waiting for Dube to get his first NHL point. He keeps coming really, really close.
Sam Bennett is cursed: he had a goal (and what would have been a nice one, at that) taken away because of a penalty the other team took. Granted, it worked out fine for the Flames – they were still able to score – but Bennett’s career has not gone the way one would have thought when he was taken fourth overall, and he can’t even get the little breaks to go his way.
Numbers of note
40% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF% on the night. That includes a 56% 5v5 CF in the first period, followed up by the Preds trying to play catchup. It happens.
43 – The number of saves Smith made for his first shutout of the season. That sees his season save percentage jump all the way back up to .906%, which is a much less distressing number.
15:18 – The amount of ice time Dube got centring the third line, including both powerplay and penalty kill time. He also had two shots on the night.
17:46 – Valimaki’s ice time, fifth amongst Flames defencemen, but only behind Michael Stone by 1:24. His 2:17 on the penalty kill was also third most amongst Flames defencemen, behind just Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. And again: he was the fourth defender trusted to kill that lengthy five-on-three, along with Giordano, Brodie, and Noah Hanifin. That it’s taken him just three games to close in on Stone’s presence on the ice is going to be something to watch.
11:52 – Andersson’s ice time, which was less than all 10 games he played in the NHL last year – but only one of those games was before the Flames’ chances of making the playoffs was over. With Travis Hamonic projected to be out a while longer yet, Andersson’s ice time over the next several games will be something to watch, as well.
29.4% – The Flames’ powerplay percentage over three games. That’s ninth in the NHL right now. And includes that disastrous zero-for-seven start. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it up, or if they’ll fall back into their habit of a poor showing on the man advantage costing them games. In two of three games so far, it’s helped them win.
We saw the Flames play great games in 2017-18 as well – the kind where you could see the team’s full potential. It never materialized over the course of an 82-game season. Just three games into this one, everything seems a lot bigger than it actually is – but what gives more hope from a performance such as this, I think, is that they’re succeeding in the exact avenues they would have failed in last year.
And that while they aren’t on the board yet, the rookies are already looking like meaningful contributors. For a team that didn’t have any make the NHL out of camp last year, that’s huge.