Two of the top teams in the NHL going toe to toe for 65 minutes. Yeah. That game was phenomenal.
Feel of the game
Initially, it seemed as though both teams were getting a feel for one another to start, as though they were conscious of what a big matchup it was and needed time to observe their opponent before really getting going. And then, the Flames just took over. Sure, they got scored on first, but quickly potted three goals over the span of about eight minutes to take what was looking like a commanding 3-1 lead after one. The Flames weren’t just hanging in there with the Lightning: they were dominating them.
That ended in the second period, during which it almost seemed as though the Flames started to coast. They quickly saw their lead evaporate, and taking multiple penalties could have given the Lightning the ultimate edge, were it not for the Flames’ penalty kill fighting them every step of the way.
That set the stage for pretty much the perfect period of hockey in the third. Both teams got great chances; both goalies made amazing stops. It was a back-and-forth of the highest level, and it was pretty much non-stop exciting – particularly in the final five minutes. Sure, there was disappointment when Dan Girardi scored to give the Lightning a 4-3 lead, but at least it had been a hard fought game. But then Johnny Gaudreau – who had been buzzing throughout the night – got a partial breakaway and, with even more determination than he’d shown before (and he’d shown a lot), tied the game and sent the Saddledome into what sure looked like a frenzy.
Overtime was even more exciting. The Lightning hit posts or shot wide; the Flames had extended chances and Louis Domingue had every one of them. The Flames had every opportunity to end the game but just couldn’t beat a goalie who had also risen to the stage the contest had set.
Which left a seven-round shootout: about as coin flippy as a game could possibly get. Both teams deserved the win. Both teams put on a hell of a show. And even though the Flames only picked up one point – and even though they had so many chances to take two – that was one of the best games we’ve gotten to see them play. It lived up to the hype.
The good news
The standings show the Lightning as the absolute class of the league. The Flames are grouped in the tier just below them. They went toe-to-toe with them the entire game, and absolutely no point were they out of it. You can add all the asterisks you want for the Flames’ performance so far this season – weaker opponents, injured opponents, whatever – but you can’t really come up with any excuses on this one. Halfway through the season, and the Flames are legit.
Welcome back, Mikael Backlund. Welcome back, Sam Bennett. Both players had a hell of a night, particularly in the first period, when they were creating scoring chance after scoring chance after scoring chance, and capitalized on two of them. All while having to face off against the Lightning’s best – Backlund, in particular – and doing a great job containing them. This is pretty par for the course for Backlund, but it’s especially nice to see Bennett have a game like this: he wasn’t flashy like in his four-goal game, but he was solid and things paid off for him.
It’s easy to forget, since Johnny Gaudreau is just the default Flames leading scorer, and has been for almost his entire career. But every now and then he’ll have a game that just makes you sit back and admire him. This was one of those games for Gaudreau, and he kept ramping it up as the game went on and urgency increased. He’s so captivating – and then he turns it up another notch and his team gets something out of his singlehanded effort. He’s a top offensive talent and we’re so lucky we get to watch him game in, game out.
The penalty kill kept the Flames in it, big time, barely giving the Lightning a chance to do much of anything on four powerplays. Elias Lindholm has turned out to be such a miraculous get: he’s kind of like Backlund but with a far more lethal shot. What a gutsy effort from the group, especially considering the back-to-back kills they had to make right when the Lightning had picked up major momentum with two goals.
David Rittich gave up four goals, but two were deflections off of his own teammates. This was one of those games were the 0.889 save percentage isn’t a good reflection on how well he played: he got out-duelled by his counterpart, yes, but facing a top team with so many offensive weapons and giving his own team a chance to hang with them was a real measuring stick for a relatively green goalie. I don’t know what else he could do to cement himself as the Flames’ starter – but that he got to start this game to begin with is probably a good sign.
The bad news
Credit to the Lightning, because they’re a good team, but the Flames are a good team, too, and should have been better than to let the Lightning walk all over them in the second period. The Flames should know more than most that a two-goal lead is extremely surmountable; their start to the middle frame didn’t reflect that.
The penalty kill was great, but it shouldn’t have had to have been: the Flames took way too many penalties, the too many men one in the third period being particularly silly. Their penalties have gone up as of late, and it’s something they need to clean up. And even though they got a handful of shorthanded chances, spending all that time on the kill likely impacted their ability to create more scoring opportunities – which, in a game that went to a shootout, they probably needed.
It isn’t happening every game, but it’s popped up a little more often over the past week or so: the Flames are developing a knack for surrendering a goal soon after their powerplay is killed off. It’s happened in three of the past four games.
The shootout was real bad, featuring some questionable selections (Backlund and Bennett scored during the game, why not go with them over James Neal or a defenceman? And if you’re going with a defenceman, why not one of the top scorers in the league in Mark Giordano?) and a bunch of players trying to out-deke Domingue immediately after seeing their teammate fail to do just that. Although, fortunately, it’s not like the shootout is a thing in the playoffs – and the Flames sure look like they’ll be playing in the spring. The extra point would have been nice, but at least this is one error not worth fretting over.
Numbers of note
48.91% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. They were well over 50% during the first and third periods, but a 30.77% in the second sunk them. Their corsi goes up to a 50.93% in all even strength situations, including overtime, during which the Flames did everything but score.
80.5% vs 28.6% – The Flames’ 13th-ranked penalty kill completely shut down the Lightning’s second-ranked powerplay. Lindholm, Backlund, and Giordano were the only Flames to get over four minutes on the kill.
6 – Gaudreau led the way with six shots on net. He wanted to score, and he was finally rewarded for it. Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, and Sean Monahan all had five shots of their own.
40 – Monahan’s goal was his 40th point of the season, giving the Flames three 40-point scorers. The Avalanche are the only ones who can match that total (including Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, who are starting to creep towards 60 points.) Drop the limit to 35-point scorers, and the Flames are still the only team with five of those – no other team has more than three.
3:07 – When a playoff-type game breaks out, there isn’t quite as much room for Ryan Lomberg types on the ice. It’s easy to forget because he’s been out for over a month, but take this lineup and swap Lomberg for Michael Frolik. The Flames can be better than this, and they still got four goals.
After years of being the definition of mediocrity, the Flames are now the kind of team that can play hockey at its best. They were one half of one of the greatest displays of hockey we have seen all season across the entire NHL. They helped showcase the sport at its peak, and this was just some regular season game in December.
I’m so happy. I’m so proud of them. I can’t wait to see how high they can go. It may not (probably won’t) be a Stanley Cup, but it’s so much better than everything that’s had to precede this season.