The Flames looked like they actually belong in the NHL and went toe to toe with a pretty good team. That was a necessary step forward, even though it resulted in a loss; sometimes you play well but the other team just plays a little better.
Feel of the game
The Flames got off to a decent start, in that they initially limited the shots that actually got through to Mike Smith, and didn’t have a total meltdown. It quickly turned unideal when players forgot how defence and playing within one’s own zone works and hung Smith out to dry for the first goal, and giving up a powerplay goal five minutes later looked like it was going to spell disaster.
But instead, something else happened: the Flames got a bounce. They threw the puck on the Caps’ net, as they had been doing intermittently before, and 15 seconds after Washington had made it 2-0, Travis Hamonic got his first of the year to draw it back within one. Just over two minutes later Elias Lindholm immediately capitalized on a powerplay to even the score, and the Flames left the first period still looking like they could contend in the game.
It was a big step up. Play was largely back-and-forth with an edge towards the Caps until Matt Niskanen got the lead back for them late in the second, but the Flames worked to tie it up in the third and were finally rewarded when they trusted Rasmus Andersson to be on the ice with the goalie pulled. He blasted the puck at the net, Matthew Tkachuk tipped it, and just like that, the rookie finally picked up his first NHL point with 1:27 to go in a one-goal game.
Unfortunately, the Flames got a powerplay immediately after, and as we know, the powerplay is not to be trusted. Overtime was largely played at four-on-four, something of a disadvantage due to just how great the Flames are at three-on-three, and eventually, they fell in the fourth round of the shootout: about as anticlimactic of a loss as one can have, but not that bad of one.
The good news
Remember how bizarre it was that Andersson was cut to start the season? He’s definitely an NHLer: though he played limited minutes on a rookie pairing with Juuso Valimaki, it speaks volumes that he was trusted to be out there when the Flames went to a six-on-five situation. That he was the driving force behind the game-tying goal only adds to how much he deserved that. Hopefully he gets more trust as the season goes on.
Speaking of rookies, Dillon Dube looked great once again, with a number of chances for his first goal (including ringing it right off the post in the third period when the Flames were trying to tie the game). It’s been a solid showing from a rookie who jumped right into the NHL; if only he could build on his two assists.
Though there were still defensive zone breakdowns – that first goal against in particular – the Flames looked a lot more structured than they had been in a while. They gave up high danger chances, but you also saw forwards backchecking, covering guys, and breaking up plays far more often, preventing would-be disasters from happening. It was refreshing, but still something to build on, because it wasn’t quite good enough just yet.
Also appreciated: a quick response to falling down 2-0. The 2017-18 team would have sulked. The team of literally one game ago would have sulked. Saturday, the team worked to create offence, got it, and kept it a close game they had a chance of winning. It’s amazing how much better that is.
This team is so so so much fun to watch at three-on-three.
The bad news
In an earlier game, Johnny Gaudreau got thrown into the boards without a call. This game, James Neal got thrown into the boards without a call. What the hell? I’m happy concussion spotters are pulling players from games and whatnot but can there please be the same level of awareness among the officials on the ice? These shouldn’t be hard calls to make.
As much as it improved from one game to the next, the Flames still need a lot of work in the defensive zone. It’s actually kind of sad we’re still at this point, and you’d really think this roster would be better at zone play than it is.
Don’t get me wrong, Smith was much better, though that’s not exactly a high standard considering last time. And he made a handful of big saves that kept the Flames in it, that much is undeniable. But there’s still some shakiness there. He gave up the rebound that led to the Capitals’ second goal rather than swallow the puck. He was amazing stopping TJ Oshie on a breakaway right after the powerplay expired, but also left a net so wide open that it’s honestly incredible Nicklas Backstrom couldn’t score. And stacking the pads on a glorious Alex Ovechkin chance – what? He still has a place in the NHL, evidently, but it still seems as though his leash should be short – especially with the Flames not in a position to know who they’re going to have in net next season.
Numbers of note
1 – The number of points Andersson has in the NHL. It’s especially nice that it came in such meaningful circumstances; you take them however you can get them, but that’s way more special.
200 – The number of assists Johnny Gaudreau has in his career. Leading his draft class in that stat? Gabriel Landeskog, with 204. And Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with 203. Gaudreau has played 195 fewer games than Landeskog and 143 fewer than Nugent-Hopkins and he almost has the same number of assists as they do. That’s nuts.
46.34% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the day. Their 54.84% in the third period was the only frame in which they were above 50%. Switch to all situations, though, and they finished at an even 50%, controlling 60% of the shot attempts in overtime.
2:47 and 2:13 – Lindholm’s powerplay and penalty kill time. More was asked of him on special teams than any other player; him and Mark Giordano, who played 10 fewer seconds on special teams. Lindholm played 21:27 total, second most among Flames forwards, behind just Gaudreau.
14:29 – For as much as Andersson shone, particularly at the end, neither he nor Valimaki (11:33) played that much. The other defencemen all got over 20 minutes: Giordano 28:46 (!), TJ Brodie 25:21, Noah Hanifin 23:57, and Travis Hamonic 20:55. It remains to be seen if this top four will work, giving the Flames leeway with their rookie pairing, though this game may have set the stage going forward.
.889% – Smith’s save percentage in this one. Circumstances matter, but as the season goes on, the numbers tell a story. This season, in eight starts, Smith has only had a save percentage above .900 twice. Going back to his return from injury in March of this year, through 16 games, he’s had 12 games with save percentages under .900. He has been pulled in four times in those 16 games. You can point the finger at sloppy defence and high danger chances all you want, but that isn’t the only thing going wrong here.
Despite the loss, this game was a step in the right direction. But the Flames will have to put together several more efforts of similar or higher quality in a row before we can even really start to think they’re turning the corner on 2017-18, they’ve proven that much.