One day, the Flames taking a substantial amount of time off from a game (in this case, the first period) is going to come back to bite them. Friday was not that day.
Feel of the game
Even though the Flames’ third line got them off to an excellent start, the team seemed compelled to just take off the entire first period, playing some of their worst hockey in recent memory (at least since they started looking like a legitimate Western Conference threat). They were fortunate to be down by just a goal leaving the first, though due to a late period penalty, that would soon turn to a 2-0 deficit as the Flames allowed a breakaway powerplay goal within the game’s 21st minute.
That woke them up, though. Or, perhaps more accurately, reuniting Michael Frolik with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk woke them up. The reunited 3M line started creating scoring chances pretty much right away, and it was Frolik’s tip that both reduced the deficit to one and allowed the Flames to break through what had been a snoozer of a game. The entire team came to life after his goal, and Mark Giordano’s tying goal gave them a chance to start anew for the third.
So, of course, it was Frolik who helped get the Flames their first lead of the game, stealing the puck away when the Panthers tried to get a little too fancy for no apparent reason, and leaving Tkachuk alone in front of their net. From that point on, it felt as though the game was pretty safe for the Flames, and the top line finally contributing with the empty net goal confirmed it – even with a late Panthers goal to make it a one-goal win instead of two.
The good news
It wasn’t just that Frolik had a three-point night, it was that the entire team started playing much better once he was put back on the second line. Frolik had what was probably his best game of the season, and it came from being reunited with his regular linemates in Backlund and Tkachuk. We’ve seen Backlund and Tkachuk play well alongside Austin Czarnik and Sam Bennett, too – they’re Backlund and Tkachuk, they can probably play well alongside most anyone – but Frolik, especially as of late, has brought out the very best in that line. Against the Avalanche, it was in a defensive capacity. Against the Panthers, offensive. They’re a versatile trio, they’ve worked exceptionally well together for two seasons before this one, and it kind of feels settled that this should be the line going forward, barring anyone taking a night off or a trade for another top six forward or something. (Squeaky wheel gets the grease, maybe, but if the wheel is right about needing the grease to begin with…)
While it was the 3M line that took control of the game, the third line deserves a lot of love, too. Bennett in particular really shone, even on a point-less night. They had a good start to the game; they were matching the pace the second line set in putting on pressure in the second period; they were fun to watch because they were energetic and playing well. On a night in which the top line didn’t really do too much, the other forwards were noticeable for the right reasons.
Old man Giordano, who is still a point-per-game player 44 games into his 35-year-old season, is just really, really good. Still. That was a hell of a shot to tie the game, and he just never looks out of place, even though he’s always playing the biggest minutes. It’s going to be jarring if his play ever declines. And, knock on wood, but I’m so, so looking forward to Giordano back in the playoffs, hopefully on an extended run. If anyone deserves it it’s him.
The bad news
Yet another brutal first period by the Flames, in which they once again had problems with turnovers (Noah Hanifin – ouch. He wasn’t prepared to get pressured behind the net like that) and getting out of their zone. The Flames recovered well enough, but it’s a habit they’ll probably want to break out of at some point; playing that poorly for stretches of a game can’t keep up.
For the third game in a row, the Flames have given up a goal with the other team’s net empty in the final minute of the game. Two of their last three game winners have been empty net goals because the team has gotten lackadaisical after scoring the empty netter and extending their lead to two. Everything’s turned out okay in the end, but that’s only because the Flames have gotten those empty net goals to begin with (and they’ve certainly missed their fair share). It’s definitely gotta stop. Give credit to the other team for still trying to force overtime, but the Flames need to be better in the final minute, regardless.
David Rittich trying to leave his crease to do something with the puck continues to be an adventure, and not a particularly fun one. In fairness, after Rittich took a needless penalty freezing the puck at the faceoff dot in the first, he showed he learned from his mistake by edging back into his crease after covering the puck up in the third. Though there was also what could have been a dangerous clearing chance in the third, as well. As long as he’s got everything under control by spring!
Really no clue why Keith Yandle thought it was necessary to attempt an axe swing as Sean Monahan was scoring into the empty net. That was a temper tantrum. Just astoundingly unnecessary; players potentially getting hurt in garbage time helps nobody.
The Panthers challenged for goaltender interference on Giordano’s goal due to Tkachuk bumping Roberto Luongo in his crease a little bit before the puck found its way in. I’m not sure if that was much different than, say, Anthony Peluso getting a goal called off in Edmonton. This is more of an overarching bad news bit, though: we’ll simply never know what goaltender interference actually is. And considering the Flames’ history of goals not being called in the playoffs… I am getting preemptively worried, maybe, a little.
Numbers of note
65.88% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. When they turn it on (such as in the second period: 76.47%) it’s amazing just how dominant they are. Let’s not leave out their 24-12 in scoring chances, or 13-4 in high danger corsi events, either, according to Natural Stat Trick.
85% – In 12 minutes of 5v5 ice time with Backlund and Tkachuk, Frolik had an 85% CF with them. He was at 0% the rest of the game (i.e. the first period). It was probably a good move to reunite them.
15-19 minutes – Who needs a fourth line? Not Bill Peters on a Friday night, apparently. Elias Lindholm led the Flames’ forward group in ice time with 19:37. Frolik played 15:15, the least out of all of the top nine forwards. It was very evenly spread out, about what was deserved considering the games the second and third lines were having, and the fact you can never really count the first line out.
4-5 minutes – And then there was the fourth line, getting only about 4-5 minutes through the game (Czarnik with a little more thanks to starting the game with Backlund and Tkachuk). The fourth line got two shifts in the second period, and one shift in the third.
14:30 – In contrast, Oliver Kylington made his return to the lineup, playing the least among all Flames defencemen – and he still skated for a healthy 14:30. It’s the fourth most minutes he’s had in a game this season.
15 – Frolik has been collecting points since his return to action. His 15 on the season now ties him for 10th on the team with Bennett – albeit in 15 fewer games.
The Flames have been floundering a bit in playing well through an entire game since just before the Christmas break. They’ve kept winning, though, so the damage isn’t being done in the standings. I think this is where the fear starts to creep in that the Flames aren’t as good as their record shows, even though a lot of other numbers point to them being a legitimately competitive team.
There’s the pessimistic outlook for that – this season is a mirage and they’re doomed in the playoffs – and the optimistic outlook – just imagine how good they’ll be when they get over this stretch and really get going for the postseason. I’m more inclined to believe the optimistic look is closer to reality. For all their warts – and every single team has warts – this is still a good team.