Two goalies with sub-.900 save percentages enter the rink. Two goalies… play well? And the rest of the Flames were, in theory, also there.
Feel of the game
After David Rittich got his first career shutout, and considering Mike Smith’s play as of late, there was understandable opposition to his starting the game. That was only reinforced when the Sharks opened the scoring just 50 seconds in, and there was an immediate vibe of “oh, great, Smith is old and bad, here we go again.”
But for two things: while it was a shot Smith theoretically could have had, the Flames had every chance to clear the zone and couldn’t. And as the game went on, Smith’s play went from shaky to good to game-saving. It’s a team game, has always been the excuse. You can’t blame it all on Smith was the line a lot of people like to parrot. That hasn’t exactly always been the case (see: Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Ducks), but this time, it was actually right.
The Flames got a few good scoring chances in, including Mark Giordano’s shot off the crossbar right after the Sharks’ first goal, and it developed into a pretty back-and-forth game. At least until the second period, when literally every Flame on the ice but Smith completely forgot how hockey worked, and they completely left their goaltender out to dry, giving him absolutely no chance on the goal that made it 2-0.
It wasn’t all despair, though, as not even five minutes later Mark Jankowski and Sean Monahan combined to turn it back into a one-goal game, but the Flames’ defence and skaters were otherwise disastrous. They made a game of it in the third period, as they are wont to do, but just couldn’t capitalize (including the most lethargic possible penalty shot attempt by Sam Bennett), giving up an empty netter in the final minute and taking the loss.
There are plenty of times this season Smith has probably needed to apologize to all of his teammates. This time, back-to-back circumstances and scheduled loss be damned, all of them need to apologize to him.
The good news
The Flames have one of the worst penalty kills in the league at time of writing, but the past two games, it’s been legitimately great. They killed off all three penalties they took this game, and at times wouldn’t even give the Sharks an inch. Here’s to hoping they can keep that up.
Jankowski is slowly but surely coming alive. He was in exactly the right place to pick up the puck that led to Monahan’s goal, and he had a couple of good scoring chances himself, including a dynamite point blank one in the third period that could have tied the game. Granted, he’s still going long stretches without scoring – he had two points in three games a couple of weeks ago, six games with nothing, and another two points in three games on this road trip – so I don’t know if this is the start of a positive stretch, but good games are good games and should be recognized.
Smith has been rough this season, and has definitely been outplayed by Rittich overall, but this was a great effort from him, and easily one of his best games of the year (the only other particularly good ones, if I’m remembering correctly, are the Nashville shutout and the win over Boston). But Smith playing well is better for everybody: the team, obviously, because it gives them a chance to win; but especially Rittich, who retains a safety net when the other goalie can play like this. The Flames still need to transition to playing Rittich more, if only because that’s the only sensible long-term approach, but knowing Smith still has quality NHL performances in him is definitely a relief. … He just has to do it again.
The bad news
Mikael Backlund had another rough night, particularly on the Sharks’ first two goals (though he was great on the penalty kill? The dichotomy of man). At least his track record suggests this does not last, but the Flames were sloppy defensively and he’s one of their primo defensive players; you do the math.
Noah Hanifin didn’t have a great night, either, and this time Travis Hamonic came way back down to earth. Like with Backlund, hopefully it was just a bad weekend, but this can’t continue.
Bennett can’t score. And Sunday night, it went beyond “he’s getting so many chances but he’s just so unlucky.” Coming into this one, he had one point in 10 games despite frequently coming close. But nothing encapsulated just how brutal it’s been to not get anything on all of those chances more than whatever that attempt at a penalty shot was. He did a great job in creating the scoring chance (Backlund just missed the rebound from it as well), but once he was put in a do-or-die situation he… didn’t even whiff, he skated through the motions. It was defeatist. “I’m not going to score anyway, so why even try?” kind of thing. And it was just sad. He led the way with six shots on net, but that penalty shot attempt is going to be the defining moment.
Absolutely nothing points to the incompetence of refereeing more than completely missing what’s an automatic call. Missed and botched calls happen all the time (and did indeed happen in this game) but the delay of game penalty is as automatic as you get in hockey. There’s no room for debate. Except when there apparently is, and instead of the Flames getting to close out the game on their first powerplay of the night, they were left trying to defend an empty net with no extra attacker. There’s bad, and then there’s that.
Numbers of note
50% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF for the night. They made up for a garbage second period with a strong third, but it was too little, too late.
17:25 – Hanifin’s ice time. He was the only defenceman to not get any penalty kill time whatsoever. TJ Brodie, Giordano, and Hamonic all had no problem going over the 20-minute mark thanks to their time on special teams, while both Michael Stone and Juuso Valimaki’s time on the kill helped push them up towards Hanifin’s minute range.
8:03 – James Neal’s ice time. Neither he nor Austin Czarnik (6:41) got a single shift in the third. There’s kind of a rotation of whipping boys going on here (remember when Michael Frolik would get benched for some reason?), and now, it’s Neal’s turn. I would like to posit that any Troy Brouwer comparisons are just lazy – Brouwer consistently made his teammates worse, and Neal does not – but the need for urgency is making itself very well known, even without the implications of Neal’s five-year deal. I’d also suggest that I’m very well aware there’s a massive difference between skaters and goalies, but I wonder if there are any parallels to be found between Smith and Neal’s underperforming and the clear insistence on letting a veteran work out of his struggles.
19 – Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Monahan all lead the Flames with 19 points in 18 games. Elias Lindholm has 18 in 18. Giordano has 16 in 18, and Backlund has 10 in 18. After that it’s all single digits, including a slew of guys with four points each (Bennett, Czarnik, Jankowski, and Neal included). Something’s gotta give with the second group. That was the entire point of overhauling the forward corps in the offseason.
.929% – Smith’s save percentage, the fourth time this season he’s clocked in a save percentage over .900 (now double from the two times he’s been pulled this year). Great game from him, but he’s yet to put two good games back-to-back in some time (at a glance, it looks like January 2018 was the last time he actually did that). Just like the rest of his team, it’ll be hard to trust him until he takes at least that first step.
This is absolutely stupid, but: the Flames played well enough to take away four points on this road trip instead of just two, even with the back-to-back and scheduled loss scenario. If the Flames had had this Smith against the Ducks, they’d have won that game. If the Flames had played against the Sharks the way they did against the Ducks, they probably would have won this one. They got their wires crossed, and instead ended up with a losing road trip against three divisional opponents.
I think, at this stage, it’s fair to call them a team that oscillates between mediocre and good with goaltending that really needs to figure itself out in order to give them that extra boost. The good news out of that is we know they can be better (all the while getting mostly good results to date); the bad news is we don’t know if they will be (and if they’ll continue to).