First by the post, then by Austin Czarnik’s backhand. Though I think it would be entirely fair to say that’s probably not how any of us would have really expected a game between the second best team in the league and the worst (that’s selling off its best players, at that) to go.
Feel of the game
Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund picked up right where they left off against the Ducks – that is to say, as the Flames’ best forwards – to open the scoring. It looked like the Flames were set to run away with the game early, too, as soon after their linemate, Matthew Tkachuk, appeared to score, but for a long challenge that ultimately declared he had interfered with Craig Anderson’s ability to freeze the puck. But no biggie, because the Flames were clearly the better team and were going to dominate on the scoreboard, right?
Not quite the case, due both to the Flames getting too cutesy with the puck at times – a common refrain this season, but more pronounced when it’s just not going in – and Craig Anderson’s own aggressive play in breaking up the Flames’ ability to get the puck to one another. The Flames thought they had more to work with than they actually did, and Anderson apparently had no intentions to roll over.
David Rittich, in contrast, rarely had to come up big – though he was certainly capable when the moment called for it. His only blemish on the night wasn’t so much on him as it was on a poor line change allowing Brady Tkachuk a breakaway, which was something one could feel coming, even as the Flames had controlled play most of the game, a shift by the top line stuck in their own zone preceding the game-tying goal.
Things appeared to take a turn for the hopeless when it looked like the Senators took the lead on the powerplay, but upon reflection, Rittich had been victimized by the exact same play Anderson had on Matthew Tkachuk’s goal. The officials stayed consistent – they had to – and the game stayed tied. The Flames’ powerplay didn’t do much to make a case for itself, and things looked destined for overtime.
At least until the final minute, when Anthony Duclair rang one right off the post. And then, seconds later, with the puck back in the offensive zone, Czarnik got it and ended it with 41 seconds to go.
The Flames clearly should have been the victors all along – though playing it that close was a surprise.
The good news
After Bennett played so well against the Ducks, he had the chance to stay with Backlund for this outing, and the two showed why they can work so well together. The really good thing here, though, is that the Flames have enough players that they can switch up their lines whenever necessary and still have an offensively talented, dangerous line. When Bennett slowed down early in the season, Michael Frolik stepped up and looked like the solution. When Frolik slowed down, Bennett did the same in kind. Combine that with a coach in Bill Peters who’s willing to shake things up, and it provides some further versatility for the Flames going forward, whether they bring in a new player or not.
It’s just always really enjoyable to see a player like Czarnik get the chance to step back into the lineup and make something of it. He probably won’t be able to keep this up – he has four goals in five games since dressing as a regular, which is unsustainable for basically any player – but he’s still playing well enough that it’s clear he deserves to stay in the lineup. The more forwards playing like that, the better.
Rittich had a really rough go of things the last time he dressed. Though the Senators aren’t the most formidable opponent, it was a good game to ease him back into things. He still had to make a couple of high-danger saves, he was alert, and he didn’t come close to costing his team the game, as he’d been flirting with in games before his Tampa outing. Probably the easiest first step forward to take, but he took it.
The officials were consistent! Whatever your thoughts on if Matthew Tkachuk’s goal should have been called or waived off, the exact same standard was applied to the Senators later in the game. At least NHL officiating isn’t so bad that they aren’t calling what’s obviously the exact same play two different ways.
The bad news
When will the top line return from the war? They were better than they were against the Ducks – that is to say, they actually got shots on net, and legitimately tried to score on occasion – but they just don’t look dangerous or threatening, which is a really weird thing to say about one of the few teams so close to having three 70-point forwards (Tampa is the only one that actually does). You’d especially think they’d start picking up against a weaker team that should, in theory, having more trouble defending against them; instead, they were often thwarted by the goalie before even getting a proper shot off. Is someone hurt? Are multiple someones hurt? Is this just regression kicking in, as is wont to happen to even the best players? Whatever it is, hopefully they snap out of it sooner rather than later, or a potential deadline acquisition may not really matter.
The cutesy play the Flames had on display when trying to score really was bad. Anderson played well, but there’s no excuse for that game to have been as close as it was. All it took was one bad line change to put the Flames’ victory into jeopardy. It’s good that they won a close game, yes – but this isn’t a game that should have been close. Neither was the game against the Ducks, for that matter. That this is how they followed up that stellar game against the Islanders is perplexing. At least they can’t play down to their competition in the playoffs, probably?
Numbers of note
58% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF. They were particularly better in the third period – 64.71% – when it became very clear they were going to have to at least score again in order to get the two points they absolutely needed to get.
8:52 – The amount of time Matthew Tkachuk faced Brady at 5v5. Brady was Matthew’s most common opponent, while Backlund was Brady’s. In the 8:52, Matthew won the battle – he had a 64.29% CF against his brother. (A lot of that comes from playing on the better team, but still, some bragging rights since only one of their goals actually counted.)
4 – Matthew Tkachuk leading the Flames in shots isn’t much of a surprise; really, it’s rather welcome, considering how he has his own slump he needs to get out of. (Also helps that he was playing alongside Backlund and Bennett, and the three worked together well, especially early on.) More of a surprise? That Travis Hamonic also led the way with four shots.
10 – Czarnik became the Flames’ 17th 10-point scorer, tied with Garnet Hathaway in 22 fewer games played. Czarnik has a shooting percentage of 13.3%; Hathway, 13.5%, and neither much in the way of assists. The depth is great, but it’s not reliable in the long-term.
At time of publishing, there will only be a couple of hours left before the Flames can no longer add to their roster. They’re already in the playoffs – that much is clear – but a lot of their play this season has left a fair bit to be desired, it’s just that they’ve been able to keep winning anyway. Is that the exact situation in which they should go big? Spend assets to further improve a team that’s probably playing at least a little above its head, try to ensure that they’re no longer playing above their head but that they’re reaching their full potential? Or wait it out, be happy with this unexpectedly good year, and see where the future takes the team without having to worry about giving up prospects or starting future cap concerns early?
Guess Brad Treliving will have it figured out soon enough. The Flames, though still a good team, have looked pretty different in February than from their January play.