It’s still early yet, but the Flames just might be a good hockey team.
Feel of the game
The Flames played like the first three minutes of the game never happened.
They had the worst possible start anyone could have asked for: already facing goalie problems and dressing their largely unproven backup for his first start of the season, David Rittich gave up a brutal rebound just 11 seconds into the game, and already had his team down. One bouncing puck a couple of minutes later combined with what appeared to be a complete lack of confidence, and the Flames looked ready to implode. Nobody wants to play to a two-goal deficit just 2:40 into a game.
Maybe Bill Peters calling a timeout was a factor in righting the ship; maybe the Flames would have collected themselves on their own without it. Either way, though, what followed the timeout was a game in which the Flames appeared to disregard the fact they were down by two goals, and go back at it as though it was a 0-0 game.
That is to say, they played as they normally would have. They generated a lot of chances. Most didn’t score. They played aggressively. Most of the time, it yielded nothing. But they broke through just enough to even the game – it would have been poetic if Elias Lindholm’s game-tying goal had come with 2:40 to go, but it came with 1:54 left – and that momentum, combined with one of the best players in the world at 3v3 hockey, got them the win.
The Flames disregarded their early deficit, played as they know they can, and saw success for it: kind of similar to the third period in St. Louis. Let this be a mood they can carry over the next 77 games.
The good news
They never quit. It’s kind of like we’re seeing the confidence of the 2014-15 team injected into a group that’s actually rather talented.
Sam Bennett scored a goal, and a very legit one at that, crashing the net and everything. It didn’t get called off. He’s had horrendous luck throughout his NHL career, and while we can’t say he’s finally turning the corner (been burned on that assumption a ton of times!), he’s getting yet another chance to prove he can be something more – and so far, at least, he’s doing something with it.
Is Lindholm a sniper now? He’s tied Sean Monahan for the team lead in goals with four. (Although caution: it’s early, so every percentage is out of whack, but his current 30.8 shooting percentage really is a lot. Then again, this is probably the best forward group he’s ever played with. Who’s to say!!) The early returns on Lindholm is that he is, indeed, the kind of player the Flames were missing from their scoring lines.
The Flames’ forward depth is nuts. We’ve grown accustomed, in this short time, to Lindholm as Johnny Gaudreau and Monahan’s winger; but wait, no, suddenly it’s Matthew Tkachuk. Bennett is back with Mikael Backlund, whom he’s had success with in the past, but now suddenly noted sniper James Neal is also there. Lindholm got “bumped down” the lineup, but he was still playing with two energetic players with a lot to prove. And then the fourth line was out there drawing penalties. It’s only been five games, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the sheer potential of this forward group, and that’s with Michael Frolik being a healthy scratch for some reason.
TJ Brodie looked like the Brodie of old. He was extremely active and aggressive the entire night. Yeah, he got burned on the second goal, but you could tell he was doing everything in his power to make up for it. He might’ve been the most noticeable Flames defenceman for me, but in a good way: strong penalty killing presence, three shots on net, constantly moving, always looking to create, all over the ice. He has three assists to start the season, right behind Mark Giordano’s four points.
Maybe splitting up the rookies on defence helped, but Rasmus Andersson looked much more engaged on the defensive side of things. Great bounce back game for him. (I didn’t notice Juuso Valimaki as much, which is also probably a vote of confidence.)
Once Rittich got settled in, he looked solid. He had some luck on his side – the occasional post and whatnot – but he didn’t let the bad start get to him and, like in the third period in St. Louis, gave his team a chance to win. This time, they did.
Special teams were great. The penalty kill was aggressive and refused to concede much at all, and while the powerplay didn’t score, they were constantly pressuring, and occasionally it was just a matter of bad luck that the puck wouldn’t go in. Tons of movement, tons of chances, great to watch.
The bad news
Goaltending concerns do continue: Rittich looked particularly small on the second goal he gave up. Getting caught by surprise 11 seconds into your first start is one thing, and having your defence completely fail you two minutes later sucks, but he shrunk down and gave JT Compher an easy opening at the top of the net. Rittich did a great job getting over those early mistakes, but there are going to be other games in which those early mistakes prove more costly, and the Flames are still on very uncertain goaltending ground: for both this season and beyond.
I suppose this can be considered a flashback to the 2017-18 season: the Flames were getting a ton of chances and none of them were resulting in goals. If a team is good enough, then eventually they’ll start going in (see: Saturday night); we kept waiting for that to happen in 2017-18 and it never did. You gotta hope this year is different, and these guys start getting the results they deserve (they definitely earned a win Saturday), but I wouldn’t blame anyone for being a little freaked out that they aren’t scoring as often as it looks like they should be.
Numbers of note
63.95% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi over the night. There are two other numbers to pay attention to, though: 74.07% and 83.33%, the Flames’ 5v5 corsi in the second and third periods, respectively. Yes, that’s how score effects work, but they were also legitimately dominating the Avalanche for large stretches of play. They earned the hell out of their comeback.
41 – The number of shots the Flames had on net. Gaudreau had eight of them. His last one was the best of them all. (Garnet Hathaway was the only Flames skater without a single shot on net.)
13:50 – The amount of ice time Michael Stone got in the great rookie defencemen shuffle of 2018, including 2:01 on the penalty kill. His partner, Valimaki, had 13:14, with just 23 seconds of special teams time. Andersson, paired with Noah Hanifin, had 14:36, including 1:09 of special teams time. I’m just fascinated by the direction the Flames are taking with Stone (especially since Frolik being healthy scratched may be a slight hint that no veteran is safe), since Travis Hamonic will still be out for a few weeks yet and, well, if the two rookies progressively end up overtaking him… The beginning signs of it are there.
20+ minutes – Until Hamonic returns, the Flames appear to be mostly comfortable with being a three-defenceman team: Giordano, Brodie, and Hanifin. Special teams plays a major part in that, but they were still the only defenders the Flames trusted for 16+ minutes at just 5v5. That’s something else I want to watch for: will Valimaki or Andersson be able to break into this group, especially if one of them ends up playing with Hanifin more regularly? (Also, Gaudreau was the only forward to play over 20 minutes.)
15:20 and 80.00% – Bennett’s ice time and 5v5 corsi. That’s the most ice time Bennett’s gotten so far this season, though he did average 14:24 through 2017-18. Peters seems to have taken a liking to Bennett these past couple of games, though, and Bennett’s been justifying it. Put someone in position to succeed and they just might. Maybe for real this time? And if not, well, the Flames have plenty of forward depth to give someone else those opportunities instead.
.923% – Rittich’s save percentage. His start was terrible. It’s also the best game he’s played since back-to-back efforts in March 2017 against Buffalo and Ottawa, two bottom-feeding teams. Curious to see when he gets the net again; there are six games before the Flames’ first back-to-back matchups of the season.
99 – The number of total goals Gaudreau has in his NHL career.
Score be damned, I could get used to watching this team on a regular basis. At the end of 2017-18, it was like they had sucked all of the joy out of hockey. It’s back now.
And Rittich celebrating Gaudreau’s overtime goal before he even so much as got a shot off is just so damn wholesome.