Hockey? What’s that? It’s a game that is actually physically played by athletes known as hockey players, some of whom reside in and play for Calgary? Sounds fake.
Feel of the game
The Flames, overall, weren’t too bad, considering they were coming off of nine straight days without a game played – minding, though, that the same was true for their opponents (okay, the Capitals had eight days between contests). When the problems hit, though, they were glaring: the Flames had sloppy defensive zone play while the Capitals appeared to have a tighter game (especially as they were trying to maintain a one-goal lead), their powerplay was pointless, and Mike Smith wasn’t good enough to overcome his team’s deficits.
Giveaways when playing the puck, a failure to swallow it within his own crease, and just surrendering plainly bad goals were a part of it. The Flames did their best to retaliate – although it took them some time to figure out how (turns out actually trying to shoot the puck on net is a big help, as evidenced by their second and third goals) – and ultimately, it looked like things were destined for overtime.
Until Mikael Backlund, he who scored a possible goal of the year candidate with excellent individual effort and a Forsberg-style finish, took a penalty in the game’s final two minutes, and the work the top line did to get things tied back up in the third period was promptly erased: about as underwhelming a finish as possible.
The good news
Backlund’s goal really was phenomenal though. He also did score the overtime winner against the Hurricanes in their previous game, and shone against the Oilers the game before that, so at least it’s a reminder that secondary scoring isn’t dead with this group.
Speaking of secondary scoring, James Neal. Prior to the break, he was moved up to play alongside Backlund and Michael Frolik; in their first game back from the break, he was reunited with Sam Bennett and Mark Jankowski. And he had a couple of absolutely amazing scoring chances that could have helped the Flames win, but for Braden Holtby being on his game and a goal post. I’ve been a fan of the Neal signing all along, and it looks like it’s starting to come through. Neal is doing the things he needs to in order to score goals – they just aren’t going in. This is not, and never has been, a Troy Brouwer situation. He’s still just over seven points below his career shooting percentage. The Flames have the luxury of being able to be patient with him this season, but he’s giving plenty of reason to believe he can be a contributor – it just has to start happening. Gut feeling, but these last 30 games of the regular season might be huge for him.
TJ Brodie had a great game, both on the offensive and defensive side of things. He created the Flames’ second goal just by actually shooting the puck, and he seemed more inclined to shoot overall; he also did a great job of standing up to the Caps’ forwards. Usually it’s Mark Giordano stealing the show for that pairing – and rightfully so, because he’s the better player – but Brodie had a really good night.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: it’s so nice to watch a fourth line that actually plays hockey.
The bad news
The Flames were sloppy in their own end and too cutesy when trying to score, especially at the start of the game. It’s a bad combination that leads to goals against with limited goals for. Basically, the Flames did just enough to shoot themselves in the foot. I think some anger at the officiating is warranted – to not call interference on Matt Niskanen on Matthew Tkachuk in the first period was egregious, and three straight penalties on the Flames in the second while the Capitals could seemingly do no wrong until the third was nonsensical – but the Flames really could have won this one with tighter play on their end.
And, because he’s a story most of the time he ends up playing, therein lies the problem with dressing Smith nowadays: he just doesn’t give the Flames a chance to win games like David Rittich does. That’s not to say it’s a guaranteed win with Rittich, but the Flames aren’t good enough to overcome their defensive miscues, their overpassing, and Smith’s failings all at the same time. He had his genuinely great moments, but they get overshadowed by soft goals against. And pointing to his win record – or any goalie’s, really – means nothing. The Flames are a high-scoring team; they’re capable of overcoming deficits (their 6-5 win over the Avalanche back on Nov. 1 is probably a prime example of this: they were down 4-1, Smith got the win but it’s not like he did much to help them, they just scored their way out of trouble). On the nights they can’t score enough, those soft goals against really hurt.
A rant, but every time I hear about how Smith’s puckhandling helps I want to scream. It’s confusing two separate notions, and assuming that because Smith handles the puck a lot means he handles it well. No, he just handles it a lot. And whatever benefit the team may get out of it gets neutralized in instances like the Capitals’ first goal. Also, seeing him come out to handle it with the Flames on the penalty kill in the final two minutes of a tied game with a Caps player right there just screamed poor decision-making all around. Just. Let the skaters do their jobs.
Hopefully Travis Hamonic’s injury isn’t serious, because losing him for an extended period of time would be a major blow. Fortunately, the Flames are in a position in which they can afford to not have him in the lineup, but having such an important player get hurt multiple times in a season is a little nervewracking. I’d imagine this would spur them on a little further to trade for another defenceman.
I understand the game got chippy at the end, but I don’t understand the calls for more toughness in the lineup. Unless the hypothetical toughness comes in the form of someone offensively talented, what’s he going to do? Yeah, Johnny Gaudreau got cheapshotted at the end of the game and the entire thing devolved into a mess; it was a tight defensive situation for the Capitals, they’re seriously not going to care about any potential repercussions from any bodyguard when they can get two points. And said hypothetical bodyguard wouldn’t be on the ice anyway in that scenario, because he’s not going to help the Flames score. Unless you want to return to the time when Bob Hartley actually played Brandon Bollig on Gaudreau’s line. It’s nice having a functional fourth line; let’s keep it that way. Hopefully they improve on it by trading for more forwards who can help score and defend, not just a blind call for toughness. It wouldn’t have helped in this game and it won’t help in future games.
Numbers of note
57.41% – The Flames’ 5v5 corsi on the night. It drops all the way down to 52.94% when you look at all situations. The Flames were good enough to hang in there, but they weren’t good enough to overcome their own faulty powerplay.
2 – Brodie was the only multi-point player for the Flames. And really – Giordano’s two penalties aside – the Flames’ top pairing had the best go of things. They didn’t have to face Alex Ovechkin, but they did have to face a lot of the Caps’ best in John Carlson, TJ Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom; they did a great job.
27:20 – Seriously, Brodie had to step up, and he did. This was the most he’s played this season.
20:43 – Hamonic’s injury meant he only played 10:33, so up stepped Rasmus Andersson, with 20:43, including both powerplay and penalty kill time. It’s the third most he’s played all season. It’s so much fun watching rookies grow like this.
13:47 – Oliver Kylington, meanwhile, did not get as much ice time.
4:46 – Mark Jankowski led all Flames in shorthanded ice time (though, if Giordano hadn’t been the one taking the penalties and Hamonic hadn’t been injured, they likely would have played more than him). Changing of the shorthanded guard? It jumped him up to fifth in overall Flames ice time, more than someone like Tkachuk, which is probably more a commentary on the penalties the Flames had to kill and the ones they didn’t get a call on than anything else.
The last time the Flames faced the Capitals, they were coming off of a brutal 9-1 loss to the Penguins. They lost in a shootout, but because they actually looked halfway competent, it was a step forward – and the ensuing four-game winning streak helped with that.
This time, the Flames once again looked halfway competent, but the stakes have changed: their expectations are much, much higher now than they were back in late October. Let’s hope they can keep matching them. There are 10 games remaining until the trade deadline, and a number of tough opponents along the way to gauge just how they really match up.