It was a matinee game before a holiday break – one that the Flames were guaranteed to go into staying first in the division. This had all the makings of a trap game, and that’s exactly what it was, but hopefully that won’t be used to excuse perhaps the biggest problem with this team.
Feel of the game
Sometimes, teams are just going to have bad games. That the Flames have been on such an amazing stretch for a solid month and a half, at least, makes it seem unfathomable that they could play so poorly. Lightning game aside, though, the edges have started to fray, and this one wasn’t really an exception.
The Flames were poor in the first, and couldn’t get a save when they needed it. A quick powerplay goal late in the first to draw them back within one – after the Blues had already scored two goals absolutely nobody in red looked good on – gave them some life, and that carried well into the second period. They dominated the middle frame, to the extent it was extremely unfortunate they couldn’t tie the game up, let alone not get the lead. When they played the Blues earlier in the week, the Flames chased Jake Allen with ease; his performance Saturday compared to last Sunday was night and day.
And that was about it for the Flames. Once the Blues scored early in the third period to restore their two-goal lead, the game was technically still in reach, but time kept ticking down with very little of note actually happening, and the Flames quietly flared out to their third loss in a row.
The good news
Even though the Flames have had lacklustre efforts in two of their past three games, it doesn’t feel like they’re on a losing streak. It’s probably a bit of leftover thrill from just how good the game against the Lightning was, and the knowledge that it’s extremely likely this team makes the playoffs, but a small stretch of poor play doesn’t feel like that big of a deal. That’s not to say the team shouldn’t take it seriously – they absolutely should – but the vibe between a losing streak this year and one last year is totally different. There’s still a belief this year that the team is capable of bouncing back – if not in the game, then at least in the season.
Johnny Gaudreau is almost always a good player, but he also frequently goes into these phases in which he just takes complete control of the game. He’s in one of those stretches right now. It only resulted in a single point for him, though he was the driving force behind many of the chances the Flames just couldn’t capitalize on.
The Flames’ lone goal, just seven seconds into their first powerplay, was a thing of absolute beauty. Sam Bennett came close to scoring early on in the second powerplay, too. Though it only went one-for-four, it’s still a sign of positivity that the Flames have the personnel to get things done. From faceoff win to deft passing to tap-in – they couldn’t have drawn it up any better. (And Matthew Tkachuk really does belong in front of the net. It’s the perfect spot for him on the man advantage.)
The bad news
Though it doesn’t feel like the Flames are on a losing streak, they are. The holiday break will probably do them quite a bit of good, but there’s still a concern there: they have to know they can’t let this attitude creep in and yet, it’s there anyway. The Blues are a beatable opponent and the Flames spent most of the game not even trying. They just lost the season series to one of the weaker teams in the West; those were points for the taking they passed up on.
Also, what is it with the officials blowing the play dead when the team that’s getting the powerplay is in control of the puck?
Let’s be clear here: the Flames, as a collective whole, were pretty bad. But, whether it’s fair or not, the goalie will always be held to a higher standard when it comes to evaluating his performance versus the rest of his team’s because he plays such an isolated position. So while Mike Smith didn’t exactly get any help from his teammates on the goals he let in, they were also goals he absolutely had to stop. The first goal against was embarrassing. The second and third goals against were poor rebounds. I think it’s fair to say that, if David Rittich had been in net, he would have had at least two of those, if not all three, assuming he would have allowed for those rebound opportunities to begin with. And Smith could get the benefit of the doubt – were it not for the fact we’re halfway through the season and he’s been letting those kinds of goals in all year.
The Flames need to start being honest with themselves. Smith will turn 37 years old in March; he’s getting up there for a professional athlete, let alone one who has suffered injuries in the past, including a pretty substantial one back in February. He should not be in the team’s future plans. He probably shouldn’t be in any team’s future plans. It looks like his career is coming to a graceless end, but it’s an end all the same.
The problem: the Flames, even as they’re losing, look like a legitimate team more often than not. It’s probably fair to expect them to at least win a playoff round, if not more. League average goaltending can probably get them there; Rittich can probably get them there. Would anybody, at this stage, trust Smith with any kind of appearance in the playoffs? The team seems to have a difficult time playing in front of him now when he gives up goals like the ones he did Saturday: why bother trying when the guy in net is going to undo all of your work?
For as long as Smith is on this team, he will get starts. Rittich is not going to start 40-something games in a row. The Flames are also likely buyers, and the number one position they need help in is goaltending. Them trading for a goalie at some point before the trade deadline just seems like an obvious conclusion at this stage. It might have to involve waiving Smith. But it would be earned: this cannot continue, and he is no longer trustworthy in net. One decent stretch does not outweigh three months of giving up goals that, at times, would make a kid in juniors blush.
Numbers of note
58.67% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the day. They can thank a 75.76% second period for that; it was the only time they really looked alive.
2:35, 2:50 – Both powerplay units got roughly equal ice time. The first unit scored; the second unit came close.
5 – James Neal led the way with five shots on net. He is shooting at 3.8%. His career average is 11.8%. Everything looks a lot better when the puck is going in (consider Micheal Ferland at the start of the 2017-18 season, and Ferland when he stopped shooting at 18% – he still looked good, but he was no longer a world beater). Shooting percentage changes everything. Neal is going through the worst stretch he ever has right now, even though he has gotten plenty of chances. There’s no guarantee it turns around this season, or ever, really, but there should still be hope for him. Things get forgiven pretty quickly when guys start scoring.
10:15 – After missing a month due to injury, Michael Frolik played a little over 10 minutes in his first game back, and had no special teams time. He had two shots in what turned out to be a modest return, though only Garnet Hathway (5:39) and Alan Quine (3:33) played less than he did among the forwards (Derek Ryan played 10:48, though).
0.888% – Smith’s save percentage through 21 games this season. The league average save percentage this season is 0.908%. Smith has exceeded that mark in nine games.
Four days without games. Here’s to the Flames recharging, because we know they’re better than this. They just have to start showing it on a consistent basis. Losses are perfectly acceptable; playing like that shouldn’t be.