The Flames aren’t playing perfect games, but they’re getting the right results. It’s those results now that can ensure we’ll be worrying about just how well they’re playing later on. Say, in the springtime.
Feel of the game
The Flames and Blackhawks traded chances early on, but it was the Hawks that were the better team through most of the game, even though the Flames were the ones to open the scoring. While they had their moments in taking over the game and creating chances, the Blackhawks had more of their own. It was David Rittich who ensured the contest stayed in reach, even when Chicago took a lead early in the second – the Flames were simply being outplayed, and their goalie had to keep making big saves (and Sam Bennett and the post, too, at certain points).
At least, until the Flames were able to tie it up with a beautiful powerplay goal towards the end of the second. Suddenly, with the game tied going into the third, it was like there was no going back: Johnny Gaudreau finally scored on a breakaway to retake the lead, and as the game entered its final stretch, the Flames, as a group, just completely turned it on. Three lines were getting scoring chances, the puck control was flat out dominant, and it was like the Hawks were completely lost, but for a few brief moments they were able to get the puck in the Flames’ zone.
An empty net goal took care of things for the Flames, the Blackhawks not having enough time left to try to do anything after a very late powerplay goal, and that was that. The better team didn’t look like it through 60 minutes, but when it counted, they were phenomenal, and it got them the win.
The good news
David Rittich continues to more than come into his own as the season has progressed. He didn’t have the prettiest stat line, but he just keeps making the saves that absolutely have to be made. Defence is struggling, puck is bouncing around the crease? More often than not, Rittich ensures it’ll stay out of the net. He’s quick to react. And, as the absolute last line of his team’s defence, he does his job in bailing everyone else out. You can’t really ask for more out of this guy – and it’s great a team of this talent has a goalie to match.
Even when the top line isn’t scoring, they’re an impressive group, creating so many chances – and then scoring anyway. Probably the only criticism for them is it’s a shame Matthew Tkachuk can’t play with Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm on a regular basis, but at least they’ve got the powerplay for that. It’s absurd how talented this young forward group is. The Flames go as they do – so fortunately, they’re all well over a point per game.
Austin Czarnik has been battling to get into the lineup more often than not, but playing alongside Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund towards the end of the game, he was doing a great job in creating scoring chances as well. It was nice to see that level of play out of him – he may not be living up to the hype his free agency generated, but he’s performing pretty well for a depth player, and games like this show he does have that extra gear in him.
Seriously, when the Flames turn it on, you can see exactly why they’re near the very top of the league. They can be absolute forces of nature – it’s a genuine treat to get to watch a team at that level.
The bad news
That said, the Flames seem to have this habit of playing down to their opponents as of late. They didn’t have the best game, at least not until they tied things up at two. I think, at this stage, it’s fair to expect a little more through 60 minutes when it’s the team ranked second in the standings against the team ranked 27th. The Flames were sloppy and defensively loose through most of the game, and had to rely on their goalie to keep them in it. They’ve raised their own standards, but they haven’t quite been able to match them on a regular basis.
Travis Hamonic and Noah Hanifin, in particular, looked pretty ugly on the Blackhawks’ first two goals. That’s not to outright condemn them, especially since pretty much every defenceman gets victimized at some point, but it definitely wasn’t a banner night for them, either.
Numbers of note
51.4% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. Their third period was absolutely dominant. In the second period, the Blackhawks had three high danger 5v5 corsi events to the Flames’ one. In the third period, the Flames had eight to the Hawks’ one. The difference between a bad team putting a good team on its heels, and vice versa?
50 – Welcome to the 50-point club, Tkachuk and Lindholm. Both have now scored 50 points in a single season for the first time in their careers. They join Gaudreau (64) and Monahan (54) for Flames 50-point scorers this season. The Flames now have four of them. No other team has more than two. There are only 16 50-point scorers in the NHL right now, and the Flames have a quarter of them. That’s just stupid.
64 – As a rookie, Gaudreau scored 64 points in 80 games. As a fifth year pro, Gaudreau scored 64 points in 44 games. He’s on a five-game point streak, with 13 points scored over that time. This is also just stupid.
10 – Monahan was credited with 10 shots in the game. Ten shots! On net! In one game! His previous record was eight shots in a single game, which he has done four times: three times in 2017-18 (including his second last game of the year, by which he very much did need the multiple surgeries he ended up having), and once in the Flames’ come from behind December win over the Flyers. What a ridiculous man.
14 – That’s a lot of shorthanded goals. Over the past 10 years, only four teams have exceeded that total: the 2015-16 Senators (17), the 2008-09 Flyers (16), the 2010-11 Islanders (15), and the 2011-12 Devils (15). There’s still like half a season left to play.
13:06 – Czarnik has had a tough time getting minutes, but this was the seventh highest ice time total he’s had so far for the Flames (out of 26 games). Five of those games came in October and one in December – he just doesn’t get minutes of this magnitude anymore. Maybe something to watch.
6:28 – Meanwhile, Oliver Kylington only played 6:28, the least he’s gotten in his career (his previous low was 8:21 in the Dec. 22 3-1 loss to the Blues), which lends more credence to the Flames looking for another veteran defenceman. (Just out of curiosity, but looks like Brett Kulak is now averaging 17:47 minutes a game for Montreal over 19 games with a 59.42% 5v5 CF. Huh.)
4 – The Flames only have four games left against the Central Division, which is a shame, because they have a 12-4-1 record facing them, including season series wins over Chicago (sweep), Colorado (could still sweep), Minnesota (could still sweep), Nashville, and Winnipeg (could still sweep). They’ve lost to Dallas (could still be swept by) and St. Louis. Division of death what?
The Flames keep winning, and they keep having some of the best players in the NHL performing at an elite level, and I just don’t know what to do with this. Their games definitely aren’t perfect, but they’re getting the right results in the end. How high should we be setting our expectations for this team? I don’t think we’re going to get a true grasp of that until they’ve clinched a playoff spot – which they are, in an extremely high likelihood, going to do.