It feels like this run the Flames have been on – the one that made them look like they might be serious contenders for the Western Conference crown – began with a 4-2 come from behind win over the Oilers back in November. They haven’t let up since. And the more we see the Flames like this, the more it might be time to consider just how far they really can go this year.
Feel of the game
The Flames were the better team pretty much from the start. While it took until the second period for them to get on the board, they were still creating scoring chances before that, while the Oilers spent a fair bit of the game looking nonthreatening. Them missing the net on a fair number of high danger chances played a part in that, but also the Flames’ ability to keep them to the outside, aimlessly wandering the offensive zone with the puck, played a big part in neutralizing them as well.
And once the Flames started scoring, it looked like it was over. A Connor McDavid chance one way turned into a Johnny Gaudreau goal the other. Mark Giordano made up for a double minor by doubling the lead. Mikael Backlund threaded the needle for Oliver Kylington, and at that point, the Flames looked unbeatable.
Except they weren’t. The Oilers had life at the end of the second, and definitely looked dangerous for much of the start of the third. What had been a comfortable three-goal lead whittled its way down to a mere one, and back and forth action – when the officials allowed for it; when they weren’t calling pretty much every single infraction they could – gave the game a frantic pace. At least until Backlund stole the puck for himself and restored the multi-goal lead. And Sean Monahan was focused on his own rebound. And then it was over – and the Flames hadn’t quite played a complete game, but from the top to the bottom of their roster, they played a damn good one.
The good news
The Flames had their struggles against the Red Wings; they were sloppy and failed to track their opponents and surrendered four goals due to several series of bad choices and/or a sheer lack of paying attention. That was not even remotely the case against the Oilers. The Flames came focused and ready to play, and they stuck with it. The odd goal did creep in, but the Flames got off to a good start, and there weren’t really any passengers out there at all.
Depth doesn’t mean that everyone will score every game, but it should mean that everyone could be capable of it any game. That’s what we’ve seen in these back-to-back games. Against the Red Wings, it was Sam Bennett, James Neal, and Derek Ryan. They were all held point-less against the Oilers but they were still dangerous. Bennett was buzzing early in the game, Ryan was that close to a shorthanded goal on a breakaway, and James Neal, playing with Backlund and Michael Frolik, looked engaged.
And that’s without giving credit to those who did get on the board. Gaudreau got things started, and Giordano’s powerplay goal was the first major signal the game was going towards the Flames. Throw in Backlund, who was pivotal throughout – he drew the penalty that led to Giordano’s goal; he threaded the assist for Kylington’s, he stole the puck for the insurance goal – and teams just aren’t left with many options. The Oilers, controlling the matchups, got McDavid out there against Monahan. That freed up Backlund. And remember, he’s still sixth in team scoring: he’s more than capable of getting the puck in the net.
The Oilers have three point-scorers of note: McDavid (70), Leon Draisaitl (56), and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (45). Then you’ve gotta go all the way down to Darnell Nurse (23) for fourth place. Between the four of them, Nugent-Hopkins scored a goal. That was it. The Flames seriously tightened up their game – and when they play to their potential, it’s really something.
I think it’s worth remembering the Flames are racking all of these wins up while their bottom defence pairing is made up of a couple of rookies, both of whom are delights to watch. Kylington has such a good shot on him, and the second powerplay unit looks like it was new life with Rasmus Andersson manning the blue line alongside TJ Brodie. They’re meaningfully contributing to one of the best teams in the league. What’s not to love?
The bad news
The Flames took way, way too many penalties in the game. Granted, so did the Oilers – we wanted the officials to call everything? Well, here’s the result! – but it felt like they were playing with fire. Doing something like killing off Giordano’s double minor was impressive, but the number of penalties taken was bound to bite the Flames sooner or later. It did, in the form of a Milan Lucic powerplay goal, which everyone should feel shame for.
This is what I get for complaining about officials not making calls. This is what anyone who has ever complained about them not making the calls gets. There was very little flow to the game – at least until it went into overdrive about halfway through the third – and it made for a choppy, somewhat dismantled viewing experience. All the nonstop penalties made it tough to get a proper handle on.
It’s hard to play a full 60, but the Flames letting off on the gas towards the end of the second cut a three-goal lead to two, and taking yet another penalty made what looked like a comfortable win a nail-biting one-goal game for some time. The Oilers found new life when that happened. It all worked out in the end, but it’s maybe fair to hope games don’t get that dicey.
Flames goalies trying to play the puck are going to be the death of me. Mike Smith tries to do it a lot, which leads to him often choosing very inopportune moments. David Rittich seems to be trying to emulate him. I would like for both of them to stop please.
Numbers of note
43.9% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. But wait! Nearly half of the game was not played at 5v5. Switch to all situations, and they had a 52.56% outing. They were the better team, score effects or not.
50+ – Welcome back to the club, Giordano. For the second time in his career, he has a 50-point season – 52 points in 48 games, to be exact. That has him four points off from his career high: 56 points in 82 games back in 2015-16. Seems safe to say he’ll pass that, knock on wood. This also gives the Flames five 50-point scorers; no other team has more than three (Colorado, Pittsburgh, Tampa). Fifteen teams have zero.
52 – Giordano is tied with Brent Burns for 52 points, the league leaders in scoring among defencemen. He’s played two fewer games than Burns has. Please give him a Norris Trophy, he deserves it.
29 – Gaudreau’s career high is 30 goals scored in a single season, which he did over 82 games back in 2015-16. In 50 games this season, he’s already at 29. Granted, Gaudreau’s career shooting percentage is 13.1%, and he’s shooting at 17.9% now, so he may drop off, but he seems like a good bet for a new career high, too.
4:34, 7:55 – Andrew Mangiapane and Kylington’s ice times, respectively. Mangiapane was buzzing in the third period, though, and Kylington stood out positively – and not just for the goal. Special teams played a big part in those two getting so few minutes, though; for example, while Matthew Tkachuk played 14:42 total, he only played 7:04 at 5v5.
4:17 – Andersson’s time on the powerplay alone. The second unit looked more dangerous than the first at times, and he seems to be playing a pretty big part in that. Good to see.
24:02, 23:55 – Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin led the way in ice time for the Flames, respectively. Lindholm plays all situations, while Hanifin got elevated likely because Giordano had six penalty minutes to his name: he played 5:47 on the penalty kill alone (Travis Hamonic beat him with 7:24, though). Hanifin played over five 5v5 minutes against the Oilers’ three point-scorers; he did a fantastic job.
38 – The total number of penalty minutes in the game, including a fair share of coincidental minors. It wasn’t even as chippy as the first Battle of Alberta. That was a lot of whistles.
It’s pretty difficult to point to a weak spot in the Flames’ lineup right now. Sometimes they lapse in their play, but overall, this is a well-constructed team from top to bottom. Any potential roster additions are less “how can we fix them” and more “how can we make them even more ridiculously good”. The Flames don’t always get results so convincingly, and this game got touch and go for a bit, but when they decide they’re going to dictate the play, they do just that, and very few teams have been able to find a response.
I’m believing in them more and more with each passing game. The last time I felt this way was probably in the spring of 2004. It’s amazing.