The point of hockey is to score more goals than the other team. The Flames can be really, really, really good at doing that sometimes.
Feel of the game
The Flames have had some trouble living up to the expectations their record has set for them as of late, and playing against their own division has been something of a problem for them, but they were definitely ready to start the game against one of their toughest opponents yet. An early goal by the reunited 3M line set the stage, and though the Sharks came back soon after, it didn’t take too long for that line to retake the lead. Throw in a quick powerplay goal and David Rittich making a number of big saves, and it looked like the Flames had this one.
There were still 40 minutes to go, though, and the Sharks scoring a powerplay goal of their own early in the second was a good reminder that this was a contest between two good teams. Matthew Tkachuk scoring a beauty just after another powerplay gave the Flames some much-needed breathing room, as would have a Sam Bennett goal that was ultimately waved off. That could have put the game in jeopardy – the Sharks came back, again, to make it a one-goal game – but a Johnny Gaudreau feed to Elias Lindholm that restored the two-goal lead in the dying moments of the second added a lot of reassurance.
At least until deja vu struck once again, with an early Sharks goal in the third to turn it back into a one-goal game. That’s about when the entire thing went off the rails: Bennett’s amazing effort resulted in a James Neal goal, and the top line went berserk to suddenly turn a 5-4 game into an 8-4 game within a matter of 3:29. As resilient as the Sharks had been all night, they weren’t coming back from that – so, going along with the officials’ refusals to call the game, both teams started physically beating up on each other rather than play out a game that was clearly over. Happy New Year.
The good news
It doesn’t come together every game, but outings like this one really show just how much forward depth the Flames have at their disposal. Three lines got in on the scoring, with Mikael Backlund’s starting the party and Sean Monahan’s putting it all away. Bennett only had one assist to show for all of the work he was doing on the offensive side of the puck, but it was a hell of an assist; Neal, in addition to the goal he finally scored, had a couple of other golden chances he just couldn’t bury because, well, that’s just how his season is going, but the effort is there. Even Derek Ryan had a couple of great chances. Only four Flames forwards didn’t have a point on the night.
Even though he let in five goals, Rittich stood tall at crucial parts in the game. The Sharks never got the lead, and a lot of that had to do with him (and, on occasion, his goal posts). The Flames dressed their best goalie for one of their biggest games of the season and he delivered – and, when the Sharks started taking over the flow of the play, he bailed his team out. Nobody had a perfect game, but the Flames’ skaters and netminder gave each other just enough to work with. Also, there weren’t any precarious moments when he came out to play the puck, which looks to be an improvement.
The bad news
Score effects probably had something to do with it – other than the 5:12 for which the game was tied, the Sharks spent a lot of time trailing, and by multiple goals at that – but they did look like the better team (although their defensive breakdowns were way, way worse than the Flames’ – and they had more of them, which isn’t something one can always count on). If anything, it’s a reminder that the Flames still have some work to do, which we should all be expecting, anyway. It isn’t inherently bad – more an acknowledgment that games like these aren’t exactly the norm.
The ending got completely out of control, and for no good reason. I’m going to call out the officiating for this one: they had the chance to get the game under control once it became clear the Flames were going to win and they didn’t bother to put a lid on tempers, resulting in the end of game explosion. Aaron Dell being mad he had a bad game is no reason to spear Bennett, who had done absolutely nothing at that point. Giving Gaudreau a penalty for retaliating against the nonsense Evander Kane was giving him without giving the original offender a penalty of his own was ridiculous. Bennett going after Radim Simek for no reason in the dying seconds of a three-goal game was just plain stupid. It took a lot of the thrill out of such a big win for the team. A lot of people are at fault for that nonsense, but properly calling penalties probably could have prevented some of that. Nobody could be bothered, and NHL officiating continues to spiral downwards.
Numbers of note
44.68% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. They were pretty in control of things for most of the first period, and killed it in the third when they took over with a 55.17% effort. But the Sharks’ 68.75% second period could have been costly, were it not for Rittich and some particularly timely Flames goals.
18 – Lindholm has a new career high in goals. His previous career high was 17 in 81 games back in 2014-15. It’s only been 40 games this season, so he’s probably not done yet. He’s also up to 44 points on the season – the exact same total he had through 81 games his last season in Carolina, and one off of his career high. His 18.2 shooting percentage is nearly double his career 9.9%, but then again, there was always the ultimate ace in the hole when it came to picking up Lindholm: he’d never played with players as talented as Gaudreau and Monahan before.
(This isn’t a number to note but while talking about Lindholm hitting new career highs, I just want to point out Tkachuk is four points away from setting a new career high of his own. His isn’t as dramatic of a glow up as Lindholm’s but it’s still pretty good.)
16 – The Flames’ top four scoring forwards combined for 16 points, including the top line wreaking havoc, Tkachuk crushing it with his own regular linemates, and the powerplay coming back to life.
40+ – The Flames’ top four scoring forwards are also their four players with 40+ points on the season. Their next game is the official halfway mark; at least four Flames players are guaranteed to be over a point per game at that stage. (Mark Giordano still has potential for this: he has 37 points in 38 games.) Colorado, Pittsburgh, Tampa and Toronto each have three players with 40+ points; nobody else is touching the Flames in this regard.
21 – Both Gaudreau and Monahan lead the team with 21 goals each. Colorado, Edmonton, Tampa, and Winnipeg are the only other teams with two 20+ goal scorers. Drop the number to minimum 18 goals – because that’s what both Tkachuk and Lindholm have – and Tampa’s the only team that can match the Flames with four 18+ goal scorers.
55 – Nine players in the NHL have hit 50+ points; Gaudreau is one of them. He’s fifth in NHL scoring.
141 – The Flames are third in the NHL in terms of raw goals scored. At 3.52, they’re fourth league-wide in goals per game. Just imagine if Bennett and Neal were less snakebitten.
1/8 – For the fifth time this season – one-eighth of the year so far – the Flames have scored at least seven goals a game. Yes, they’ve won all of them. Only one of those five games has had any empty net goals scored in it.
14:44 – Michael Frolik’s ice time in his return to action, partially affected because he didn’t play any special teams. Ice times were actually very even across the board: only Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Tkachuk got over 20 minutes of play.
The Sharks were always supposed to be the division winners this season, but the Flames have been keeping the top spot warm for over a month now. Because of that divisional element, this was an even higher stakes game than the ones against Tampa and Winnipeg. The Flames – even as they’ve struggled – have shown that they can, at the very least, hang with the top teams; at their very best, they can convincingly win.
It’ll probably be a fight until the very end for who will take the top crown, and the Flames will probably be in it the entire time. Just half a season to go.