It’s not how many goals you give up, it’s how many you score. Or something. That seems to be the philosophy the Flames are taking early this season, at least.
Feel of the game
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Flames got off to a great start, controlling pace of play and generating chances, but they just couldn’t score. That was their first period in a nutshell; they were unfortunate to not have taken the lead early on.
And then, everything unravelled in the second. The Flames bobbled the puck in the offensive zone on the powerplay, leading to a shorthanded chance for the Avalanche, and Mike Smith couldn’t stop it. Not even two minutes later, and they were down 2-0. It wasn’t quite the same vibe as the first time these two teams matched up, when David Rittich gave up two quick goals to start the game, because Rittich wasn’t in net. Smith was, and that’s been a problem more often than not.
Just over a minute after that, though, there was a surge of hope in the form of Mikael Backlund capitalizing off of a Matthew Tkachuk feed to draw them back within one. It was short lived, though. Horrible defence led to a 3-1 deficit, and Smith allowing a squeaker minutes later made it 4-1. (It should have been 5-1, but for the Flames being the benefactors of an early whistle this time around.) Most of the team didn’t deserve to be down… and yet.
But then, the third period happened. The relentlessness the Flames had played with most of the game came back in full force, and with it, the bounces they needed. Sam Bennett getting vengeance for Mark Jankowski led to a powerplay that Elias Lindholm did something with to kick off the period. Just under five minutes later, Sean Monahan put himself in the right place at exactly the right time. Just over five minutes after that, Juuso Valimaki laid as perfect a hit as you’ll ever see and James Neal did that thing he’s advertised as being able to do, and suddenly, it was a 4-4 game with about half a period left. But they didn’t lay off the gas: Mark Giordano scored just under three minutes later, and Michael Frolik just over a minute after that.
Over the course of 15 minutes of game time, what had been a 4-1 deficit turned into a 6-4 lead. A failure to hit the empty net and a penalty in the dying minutes made it a 6-5 finish, but momentum had finally been on the Flames’ side, and they made it count.
The best part about that? Yes, they got lucky to be able to score so many goals in the third period: but the way they played isn’t new. This is sustainable. They can do it again, if they’ve gotta.
The good news
Five goals in 15 minutes will do that, yeah. Even when they went down 2-0, Backlund scored pretty much right after so the game wasn’t getting too out of hand. There’s a resilience to this group we’ve seen more often than not this season. This may have been an extreme example of it, but it’s also a testament to what this team can do when they create their own luck, and good fortunes respond.
They controlled the entire game. The score makes it seem a lot closer than the actual on-ice play indicated: this is a skating group that’s capable of taking complete control.
First Rasmus Andersson, now Valimaki. Against the Sabres, Andersson was responsible for the game-tying goal by fighting to keep the puck in the offensive zone. He didn’t pick up a point for it, but that play doesn’t happen without him. Valimaki got to experience that Thursday with the absolutely perfect hit he laid on Matt Calvert, both keeping the puck in the offensive zone and allowing Johnny Gaudreau to pick it right up. These young defencemen are doing great. And Valimaki even got an assist out of that one!
May that goal be the one Neal needed. Three in 14 games isn’t a lot, but he’s pretty consistently good for at least 20 goals a year, and he’s been getting chances. Imagine this offence if he’s woken up now.
Bennett for designated fighter. He’s surprisingly tough and every now and then the hockey gods will smile on him and allow him a four-goal game instead of a four-post outing. The Flames can (and have) done a lot worse in terms of needing a guy who punches people’s faces.
There’s just something so awesome about watching these guys aggressively hug each other on the ice. If this was the CFL they could get real creative with some of these Gaudreau celebrations.
When your dad picks you up from school to go get ice cream. pic.twitter.com/JiOvOjbEjt
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) November 2, 2018
The bad news
Look: it’s not fun piling on the same guy over and over and over again. But the Flames won this game in spite of Smith, not because of him. Yes, he held (mostly) firm once the Flames started scoring goals and took the lead, but that doesn’t excuse his performance in the second period. And it’d be one thing if it was a one- or two-off, but his play has been shaky since March of last season. He had a .808 save percentage. It’s just not even close to good enough; goaltending could legitimately cost this team its season.
There are still elements of sloppiness to their zone play. Players aren’t receiving passes in the offensive zone and it either leads to no scoring chance for, or a scoring chance (and a goal) against. And their play on the third goal against was atrocious: Travis Hamonic and Noah Hanifin got schooled there. Yes, there’s something to be said for the Avalanche being a speedy team in their own right, but I think it’s fair to expect more out of the Flames at this stage.
Though it scored, the powerplay is still not great. The Flames’ second unit is pretty much not threatening at all. The top unit can be dangerous, but more often than not they were a mess in trying to get anything going (not to mention creating the initial circumstances for the shorthanded goal). The Flames have literally the most goals in the NHL right now (47!) and they’re a bottom 10 powerplay. Explain.
Numbers of note
64.84% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. And it definitely wasn’t just score effects: they had a 76.47% in the first period, and stayed well above 50% through the final two frames. They were just consistently good at directing play throughout the entire game. That’s why the comparisons to the 2014-15 Flames are only partially apt: they’re resilient, yes, but their play indicates this is something they can keep doing, and it’s not just luck. It’s talent.
29.37% – Nathan MacKinnon’s 5v5 corsi on the night. He’s one of the top scorers in the NHL right now. His linemate, Mikko Rantanen, is the top scorer. The Avs got five goals and those two had no points between them. The Flames they faced most often? TJ Brodie, Giordano, Frolik, Backlund, Tkachuk. That five-man unit shut down two of the best players in the world today.
11 – The number of Flames with points. Pour one out for Garnet Hathaway, Dillon Dube (somebody let this kid get his first goal already!), Jankowski, Bennett, Andersson, Brodie, and Hamonic.
4 – The number of points Giordano had (though Tkachuk came close, with three). Giordano also had seven shots on net. He’s 35.
5 – The number of Flames who are a point-per-game or above: Gaudreau, Tkachuk, Monahan, Giordano (all over), and Lindholm. Gaudreau and Tkachuk are tied for seventh in league scoring. Giordano is tied for second in defencemen scoring.
8:54 – Bennett’s ice time. With 17 penalty minutes in hand. And he still played more than Jankowski (6:47) and Hathaway (5:41). Hmm.
.871% – Smith’s save percentage through 10 games this season. At some point, the numbers tell the correct story. Among all goalies in the NHL – including those who have only played a fraction of a game – he has the seventh worst save percentage. Jake Allen, who has also played 10 games, has a .878 save percentage; the Blues are a .500 team near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The Blues have scored a lot of goals, too, but their corsi has been pretty bad. It’s a testament to the Flames’ skaters they aren’t in the same position.
Scoring six goals is great, and something this team has the talent to do, but it shouldn’t be necessary to win by the skin of one’s teeth. Absolutely, feel good, but I remain worried what’s going to happen with Smith in net. I hope he’s able to find his mojo again, but this team can’t count on that – and it deserves better.