The Flames have had an underwhelming road trip. In some fairness to them, their schedule has been physically all over the place since they returned from the break. In more fairness to them, though, they looked like they were ready to win this one, and that goes a long way.
Feel of the game
Both the Flames and Penguins played well pretty much throughout the entire game. What was refreshing for the Flames, though, was seeing them create scoring chances once again, and on a regular basis at that. They didn’t necessarily take it to the Penguins, but they didn’t let the Penguins dominate them, either – it was just a regular good ol’ game, with some extra chippiness involved.
Three of four Flames lines were going hard, and that gave them goals. However, it was also taking a lot of penalties that got the Penguins in the game, too, as they were only five seconds off from being a perfect four-for-four on the powerplay.
Things just felt different, though, once the Flames got quick back-to-back goals to make it 3-1 early in the second, and back-to-back goals late in that same period to make it 5-2 seemed to cement a win. That, of course, wasn’t exactly the case – they still had to hold on for another 20 minutes, including a particularly precarious end of regulation, and they did seem to take a step back – but they scored just enough goals to give themselves a win.
Could they have played better? Sure. Are there still some holes? Absolutely. But after two very lacklustre games in Florida, the Flames we’ve gotten used to over the course of the past couple of months showed signs of coming back. And that team wins.
The good news
The depth. The depth the depth the depth the depth the depth. Does the depth always win games? No. But every now and then they have games like this in which the less-heralded players step up and collectively drag the team to a victory, through sheer force of will, with just enough talent mixed in to make it all possible. Derek Ryan has been going hard for a couple of months now, and he really showed it with a three-assist game (to say nothing of the shorthanded chances he yet again created). Sam Bennett was extremely engaged in all facets, and he got a goal out of it. Austin Czarnik played for the first time in a month and he’s already made a case to not come out of the lineup. The Flames could stand to be deeper, but the group they have right now can get it done – and maybe is just the right mix of tenacity and talent to help the team in the spring.
We really, truly aren’t talking enough about Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington. I just think it’s absolutely phenomenal that we had these two unknowns, neither of whom started the season in the NHL, and they just look so good. One of the top teams in the entire league has an all-rookie pairing and they are actively contributing. Yeah, they don’t play that many minutes, but when they do they’re often noticeable for the right reasons. Andersson has gone from looking like a regular NHLer to being regularly trusted in key game situations. Kylington has gone from looking shaky and the lesser of the Flames’ big three defensive prospects to an outright regular that, even if this is his ceiling, is still really, really good. Both still have another year left on their entry-level deals. It’s embarrassing how much the Flames have going for themselves on defence. Remember when Mark Giordano got hurt and Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman had to be the Flames’ top pairing? We probably won’t be seeing days like that again for a really long time.
Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik haven’t had the prettiest stretch of games, but this one showed just how they can be so valuable as a forward duo. They’re excellent defensively most nights and do have the talent to threaten to score, it just gets overshadowed because there are guys on the team who are regularly better at it than them. They stared down Evgeni Malkin and didn’t let him do much of anything. Great outing.
The bad news
Of course, then there’s the flip side: the top guys have gone quiet. I don’t think it’s fair to outright criticize them – did anybody really think the Flames were going to have an entire line of 100-point players? They were bound to slow down eventually – but the team will need them to get going again. You do have to wonder if anyone’s banged up – it is much later in the season – but regardless they’ll need to be back at peak form within a month or so. It’s one thing for the Flames’ depth to step up the way they did in this game, but this team is dead in the water when it really counts if their top guys aren’t going.
Technically, the Flames killed off one penalty of the four they took, but it’s a five-second technicality. The kill really did not have a good day. And it makes sense on one level – the Penguins can throw out Sidney Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel all at once, and that’s pretty difficult to compete with – but two of those goals coming right at the end of a kill was disheartening. They had it, then they lost it.
I’m sure this is just me being bitter because the Penguins needed the powerplay to make it a game, but the officiating seemed to set a tone for itself from the moment Bennett got a penalty for defending Czarnik’s honour, but Marcus Pettersson didn’t get a call for interfering with Czarnik to begin with. Doesn’t matter, because the Flames won, but it didn’t sit right watching from home at least.
(This isn’t bad news, I just have nowhere else to note it – how bizarre was it watching the Flames on the powerplay but without Johnny Gaudreau because he was serving a penalty of his own? So strange.)
Numbers of note
46.94% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF. They were under 50% in every period.
12-11 – More heartening, though? Via Natural Stat Track, the Flames got back on track in regards to high-danger corsi events, out-chancing the Penguins 12-11 at 5v5. It felt like an evenly played game, and the Flames’ willingness to go for it was reflected in that.
72.73% – Crosby’s 5v5 CF against Sean Monahan and friends. The Flames’ top line had a tough time answering one of the best players in the world, which, fair enough. The greater concern surrounding them comes from the fact they haven’t looked great the past couple of games, but maybe them being matched up against Crosby helps explain some of their struggles in this one.
38.89% – Malkin’s 5v5 CF against Frolik. And mind that Malkin has Kessel on his line, too. He needed the powerplay to score; the Flames’ shutdown line did its job.
22:17, 18:43 – With special times or without, Matthew Tkachuk was the Flames’ leader in ice time (first number all situations, second number 5v5). He and Backlund were the top minute-getters for forwards, while Frolik played just a little less than Monahan. The second line was the one that was counted on in this game.
5 – Frolik led the Flames with five shots. When he’s feeling it, he’s feeling it.
>10 minutes – Three Flames forwards – Bennett, Andrew Mangiapane, and Czarnik – all played under 10 minutes. They also all had a goal each.
3 – Every Flames player who got on the board did so with just one point… except for Ryan, who went off on a three-assist game, which ties a career high for him (Dec. 13, 2016 against the Canucks in an 8-6 win). He has 23 points in 57 games. The Flames’ fourth line centre who plays all facets of special teams. It took him a bit to get going, but he’s here now.
There’s a lot to like about this one, especially after the road trip the Flames have had. The trade deadline is just over a week away, and though so far this month the Flames haven’t looked quite like the world beaters they did earlier in the year, there’s still a lot about this team to like – and this was the perfect game to show it. The score ended up a little too close for comfort, but they looked much better and much more engaged as a collective group – and that’s exactly the kind of hockey you can, at the very least, appreciate and enjoy.