The Flames’ skaters showed up for the game. For 85 seconds, their goalies didn’t. And they could never overcome that.
Feel of the game
Both teams came to play from the beginning, and the initial stages of the game were exactly what you’d expect out of two of the top teams in a division. When the Flames struck first, it was well-earned; still, though, you got the sense it was going to be a close game.
And that was all promptly undone by an absolutely horrid 85-second stretch by the Flames’ goalies. It wasn’t entirely on them, but most of it was. David Rittich letting in a goal five-hole like that was deflating, but hey, things happen. Brent Burns taking the puck right off Sam Bennett as the latter was trying to move it up on the powerplay wasn’t great – but even worse was Rittich’s response to it, coming out to play the puck and giving it right back to Burns, giving the Sharks a quick lead. And the decision to pull Rittich and put in Mike Smith, who promptly gave up a goal just 22 seconds into his time in the game, yielded nothing.
In a sense, the game was over then and there: the Flames could only score two goals all night, and those 85 seconds gave the Sharks all they needed to win. But, in a more accurate sense, the game was far from over. The Flames did everything they possibly could to try to come back, dominating much of the second period. When the Sharks made it 4-1, the Flames were able to quickly respond and get back within two. And the third period was pretty similar: the Flames were doing everything they could against a tough opponent to score. Frankly, some better puck luck would have seen it go into the net more than enough times to draw them even.
But it didn’t work out. Try as they might – and they very much did try – the Flames couldn’t undo that brutal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stretch in the first period. We’ve seen a fair number of games in which the goalies bail out the skaters; this time, the goalies let the skaters down.
The good news
The Flames’ skaters were good, though. Yeah, they gaffed, but that’ll happen every game. The fourth line was still trying to create chances. The 3M line really created a lot of chances. The top line needed a bit to properly get going, but once they did, it became evident why they’re the top line: they do have the raw talent to be game changers on their own, especially Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm. It didn’t work out, but you can’t say the opportunities weren’t there – they were just a post, or a whiffed shot, or a mad scramble, or an exceptional block by a Sharks defenceman away. They dominated the game for large stretches at a time. I’m sure some of that was score effects, but a lot of it was also just the Flames having a generally good group assembled.
The second powerplay unit really does have a lot more life – and opportunities – ever since Rasmus Andersson joined it. This is purely observational, and without any data to really back it up, but TJ Brodie does seem a lot more willing to shoot with the current makeup of that group. And he did at least get a goal out of it.
It’s been a refrain all season, but at least it’s nice to see it keep coming true: this team doesn’t fold easily at all. Their response to giving up three goals in 85 seconds was to keep trying, and even take over the game at times, in an effort to score. They didn’t let up until it became hopeless when the Sharks got their fifth goal late in the game. Last year’s Flames would have given up and let the Sharks score 10 against them. This year’s saw the hole they were in and figured, “Yeah, we can score our way out of this.” In the end, they couldn’t – but at least they gave themselves a chance.
The bad news
Goaltending cost them. Rittich’s first goal against was bad, his second goal against was really bad, Smith wasn’t ready for his first goal against, and that was all the Sharks needed. Goalies give up bad goals all the time – it’s just a thing that happens (and Smith gets more grief for it than Rittich because Smith does it way more often) – but it was just not a great game from that standing alone. And of a little extra annoyance: if Smith had started the game and given up the same two goals Rittich had, there’s probably no chance he would have been pulled. Maybe there’s something else going on behind the scenes we aren’t privy to, but it’s frustrating to see – Rittich had a bad start, but he could at least get the opportunity to play his way out of it.
I just want to put a ban on Flames goalies playing the puck. It isn’t just that Rittich gave it right back to Burns – it’s that he has a habit of making decisions that end poorly when he decides he wants to play the puck. Rarely do they result in goals against (I believe this was the second one, a giveaway to the Flyers being the first), but it was coming. At first it seemed like he made the right decision coming out to play it, but it doesn’t work if someone is bearing down on him and he doesn’t know what to do with it. And then, in the third period, we got to see Smith give it away, dodge a goal against because the Sharks hit it off the post, and then take a penalty. I feel that, for as long as Smith is on the Flames, goalies’ puck handling is going to come under increased scrutiny – and this was really bad.
The Flames ended up with seven powerplays because they, overall, outplayed the Sharks. You outplay the opponent, you force them into making mistakes. That they could only score on one of their chances hurt, though. That’s not to say that they didn’t try – there was the puck sitting in the crease and nobody able to put it in (a couple of times) and Gaudreau’s whiff – but a better powerplay maybe could’ve gotten them to overtime. Throw in Burns’ shorthanded goal against and it wasn’t a great night for the man advantage, even with Brodie’s tally.
Sometimes, you can do most things right, and they just won’t go your way. It happens. It happened to the Flames against the Sharks. Maybe they didn’t deserve the win, but they probably deserved more than two goals, at least.
Numbers of note
52.27% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. They had really strong second and third periods, although they were chasing, so that probably played a part, but at least it’s nice to see they can still be capable of that against a team as talented as the Sharks. In all situations, their corsi was 57.94%, though powerplay time heavily favoured them.
8 – The number of shots Evander Kane had against the Flames. His line was the biggest threat to them. The 3M line was tasked in playing against his group; they got beaten. It happens.
10 – And so, Lindholm’s point streak died at a mere 10 games. He scored 12 points in that time. Gaudreau also had 12 points during that stretch, while Sean Monahan had 10. Because they score so much throughout the season, their absences on the scoreboard are noticeable, and they hurt. And there’s one of the biggest red flags when it comes to the Flames’ offence: their top four scoring forwards are all having career high shooting percentages, Lindholm especially. (Monahan’s is actually pretty in line with his career average, but everyone else has at least a four percentage point difference.) They’re clearly talented – they aren’t relying solely on high shooting percentages to score, like lesser players have done for the Flames in the past – but it is, at least, something to watch out for. The team is top-heavy, but their depth is about average. It’s certainly, at least, something to keep an eye on – especially with only a couple of weeks left until they can no longer add forwards.
6 vs 4 – The top powerplay unit got around six minutes of ice time; the second unit got around four. There seems to be more of a willingness to go to the second unit nowadays. Again: props to Andersson. Though it is a bit strange that Mikael Backlund has been scoring such high-skill goals as of late, is sixth in team scoring, and doesn’t get any time on the man advantage at all.
22.9% – The Flames’ powerplay is presently ranked eighth best in the NHL. Going one-for-seven wasn’t great, but it’s probably still worth remembering just how much better the Flames are this year compared to last.
18:50 – Hamonic played the fourth most minutes among the Flames’ defence in his return to action, not far behind Noah Hanifin’s 19:33. Hopefully he’s not too banged up from the end of the game. Seriously just a force for the Flames this year; at the very least, his willingness to constantly take a beating for his team is admirable.
The Flames had every chance to win this game, and it’s chances they created for themselves. They just couldn’t dig themselves out of that brief, game-changing first period stretch.
Unfortunately for them, this game against the Sharks was probably their most important game of the month. They won’t play anyone who can really threaten their divisional standing again until March 6 against the Golden Knights. They didn’t absolutely need to win this one – they’ll be fine – but the four-point swing went against them. Instead of being six points up on the Sharks with a game in hand, they’re now only two up with a game in hand. If anything, it’s a strong reminder that there’s no complacency to be had if they want to take the division.
Otherwise, this game would be perfectly suited as a moral victory – except this was the exact wrong opponent for that. They tried. They failed. There’s still two months to go in the regular season, but a big opportunity was lost here. They’ll just have to keep trying that much harder.