Mike Smith pretty much singlehandedly ruined Jarome Iginla’s night.
Feel of the night
You always have to wonder how a team will come out after so emotional a ceremony. Yes, there’s still a hockey game to be played; yes, there are still two important points on the line. But Saturday night was far bigger than that, and we all knew it. Just trying to get into the ‘Dome two, three hours before puck drop was a struggle in and of itself.
The building is always red, but it was especially so leading up to and during the game – as one helpful person who allowed me to pass in front of him on the concourse put it, “All Iggys, come on through!” The energy and the vibe was completely different: we were all here for this one man, the greatest hockey player to ever wear this jersey, and it was going to be a special night. It wasn’t rambunctious or overly emotional, really, but it didn’t need to be: it felt as though a quiet understanding permeated the building, like a sense of awe that this was it, this was really it, Iginla’s time playing hockey really, truly was over – but all leading up to knowing he would always, always be in the building forever more, a banner with his name taking home, watching from the rafters for every game from here on out.
I think there was appropriate reverence for past, present, and future, regarding Iginla’s career, in a slightly warped time sense. The past was well-represented, the highlight being Lanny McDonald narrating Iginla’s video. It was a passing of the torch: before, McDonald was the lone Flames skater to truly have that level of honour bestowed on him. He handed the torch off to Iginla, along with a comment from Craig Conroy early on, apologizing to McDonald that Iginla probably had overtaken him as the best Flame.
For someone who grew up with Iginla’s team, his prime was well represented, as well. The players that were able to make it for the ceremony highlighted that, but it especially shone through when Iginla felt the need to shout out three teammates in particular – his longest standing, and my personal favourites growing up because, well, they were the ones who were always there. It’s not a surprise that Iginla would give them props on his night as well, but it was extra special the level of detail he went into talking about how much he loved playing with them: reminiscing over Robyn Regehr’s hitting, regaling us with tales of the elusive Miikka Kiprusoff and the saves he made, and allowing his and Conroy’s friendship to really take centre stage as the two roasted one another back and forth (just as they had at Iginla’s retirement ceremony in the summer). Those years are long past us now, but it was a time to sit back and appreciate them for everything they were – and the men who actually lived them had the chance to do the same. This is what we were celebrating: the highlights, yes, the first goal, and the 500th, and the 1,000th point, and the entire 2004 run; but also simply the day-to-day, shift-by-shift, because you don’t get your number retired by being anything less in the minutiae.
Which brings us to the future: Iginla talking about his kids regularly wearing Flames gear now, how exciting this team has become, how he never actually got to win a Cup (and I never knew I needed anything more in life than Iginla’s playful admonishment of all of us chanting “it was in,” like an authority figure finally offering acceptance and closure 15 years later) but this group… this group just might.
Feel of the game
And they started off exactly like they took his words to heart, that they knew they could win it all this year. The first few minutes were forceful play; you always have to wonder how a team is going to respond to such an emotional beginning and the Flames gave us the answer: they were going to start by being awesome. There was a blemish when a defensive miscue allowed Eric Staal – a man who should not have been allowed to wear #12 in the building! There I said it!! – to get the early lead alone in the slot, and further disappointment when Austin Czarnik’s goal was called off because nobody will ever be able to define what goaltender interference actually is, but it was fine. These are the Flames: this year, they’re good. This year, they can do it. There’s nothing defeatist when it comes to them: they will continue to come at you with a vengeance, and they will get back into the game, they will score, they will be in it right until the very end.
And they really showed that after Garnet Hathaway got kicked out of the game for a particularly violent five-minute major, no matter how accidental it may have been. Having to kill off a penalty like that is always daunting, even when you have the most shorthanded goals in the league. But they didn’t just hang on – they drew a penalty themselves and tied the game right after. Yeah, they should have scored more goals by that stage, but they were right back in the game. That’s what was important. And they kept going, too, with more and more scoring chances – and, uh, Sam Bennett’s very Sam Bennett-like habit of hitting the post on a wide open net.
But you had a good feeling going into the third. Yes, the Flames should have had the lead, but they’re the far better team – throughout the season and throughout the night – and they had this in the bag. It was going to come.
And then Smith played the puck. And it wasn’t going to come at all. Devan Dubnyk stayed in his crease, he made saves, and but for one Travis Hamonic bullet he thwarted both high-danger chances and high-velocity shots aimed right for him. He did his job, and the goalie in the other net did not. He turned the tide by doing something he didn’t have to do, putting doubt into the Flames’ chances of actually taking the lead. A turnover added further doubt. And a brutal goal late in the third, before they had the chance to pull him, sealed it: for as beautiful the night started, it ended with an ugly turn that was completely avoidable.
The Mike Smith section
For everything else that happened in the game – the defensive miscues, the turnovers, Andrew Mangiapane frequently being left helpless and Hathaway getting kicked out and all of the scoring chances that weren’t because the net was missed or the Wild just managed to break it up – there’s one particular player who stole the show, and not in a good way. So let’s talk about him. Again.
The season, as a whole, has been something of a trip watching Smith. He played well to start his first season as a Flame, but was a shell of his former self returning from injury. That same shell started this season, and never really recovered. There were moments, here and there – a shutout, a performance in which the skaters came around him to ensure the easiest possible night – but the anxiety never quite cleared whenever he was in net. He would still flail, he would still flop, and it was becoming increasingly apparent he was just an older player whose craft was leaving him. It happens to everyone eventually; it happened to Iggy.
But then David Rittich made the sin of giving up a rough five-hole goal to the Sharks, and putting the puck right on their stick with an open net minutes later, and that seemed to be that: suddenly, Smith had the starter’s net again. And the Flames went on a winning streak again, because their depth was stepping up and Smith’s flopping and flailing had mostly stopped. He was giving them just enough to win, while they were out there playing well themselves: so he got to keep starting, and he got this start.
Yes, it was just another game. Yes, it was just another two points on the table. But it was more than that: it was Iginla’s night. It was a game they should win. The date March 2, 2019 was emblazoned everywhere: this was the day, this was the game, and the skaters were clearly ready for it, clearly understood the significance of it, were going all out through most of the game, being the better team, trying to get that win, to make it a perfect night.
And then Smith just had to play the puck.
It’s not an isolated incident, though. There were at least two glaring instances in the second period he tried playing the puck and was lucky it didn’t end in disaster: one in which he bounced it right off the post, and another in which he nearly put it right on the stick of a Wild player with the net wide open. The latter, he did against the Islanders a week and a half earlier, too, and just got lucky.
Something else he did the Islanders, a week and a half earlier – and against the Ducks, eight days earlier – was go behind his net to play the puck, and continue fighting for it, even with an opposing player right on top of him, trying to take it from him. Something else he did was show no sense of urgency, just calmly battling for the puck with a wide open cage right behind him. He got lucky against the Islanders. Eight days earlier, he gave the Ducks a free goal. Saturday night, he gave the Wild a free goal. The flopping and flailing may be largely gone, but what good is that when Smith clearly shows such abhorrent decision-making game after game after game after game, singlehandedly gives the opponent two goals eight days apart, and shows no remorse or takes no responsibility for it (if he had, it wouldn’t keep happening)? How is anyone – anyone – supposed to trust this goalie when he keeps doing that? And why is it that kind of play benches Rittich, but Smith gets to go out and keep making the exact same mistakes without repercussions?
No other fanbase goes through this every time their goalie decides to play the puck. None! It’s a point of contention because Smith has made it a point of contention. He does not play the puck well; he plays it a lot. Sometimes, it turns out okay. Sometimes, it results in near disaster. And then it results in actual disaster – and this was the wrong night for it.
This wasn’t just any other game or any other night. It was a mass celebration – and Smith, in a tied game in the third period, had to go out, do something stupid, and watch it all unravel from there. The fourth goal against was hideous, too, but it all started with the second goal against: a completely needless exercise in which the goalie refused to get back in his net.
#Flames G Mike Smith on Minnesota's second goal of the night: “Just a mistake behind the net with the puck … You can’t make mistakes like that in close games and tonight it bit us.”
— Wes Gilbertson (@WesGilbertson) March 3, 2019
It was not “just a mistake” – it was a game-changing decision. “You can’t make mistakes like that in close games” – no, the word he’s looking for here is “I”. “I can’t make mistakes like that.” There’s no acceptance here. It’s not Noah Hanifin’s fault there was a wide open net; it’s not his job to play goalie. It’s Smith’s. Hanifin got back there to get ahold of the puck; what the absolute hell is Smith doing not racing to get back into his own crease to provide the last line of defence? Was it TJ Brodie’s fault when the Ducks scored on an empty net, too? There’s a common denominator in this: it’s the guy who keeps singlehandedly creating goals against for no reason.
And it’s not like other teams aren’t aware of exactly that.
Boudreau: "One part of our gameplan was to go right at Smith if he had the puck. He’s usually really good or really bad, and we got a break for that."
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) March 3, 2019
When the other team is specifically looking at the one thing you’re known for and saying, “We can exploit that,” and then goes out and exploits it… what else is there to say?
Contributor Bill Tran was the first one I saw say “I will NEVER forgive Smith for this” and it summed up my feelings on the matter perfectly. I have spent this season frustrated with him, but at the same time, fully understanding the situation: Smith is set in his ways and his performance is declining with age. It’s going to happen. He would singlehandedly cost the Flames points but they were in a good position all season and this wasn’t supposed to be their year, anyway, so it was fine.
This was not fine. This was not any other night. This is not forgivable. I got into hockey because of Iginla and everything he was able to do for this franchise, drag the team forward, make them relevant again. This was a night specifically for honouring him. That didn’t mean the Flames had to win this night for it to be a success – they just had to play a good game.
A couple of defensive miscues aside – which happen literally every single game – they did. The skaters wanted this. They were ready. They were trying so hard to score. The crowd was emotional and they fed off of it. They dominated the Wild. They were the better team, by far.
And sometimes the better team doesn’t win, and that’s okay.
But it’s not okay when this is how it unfolds. A selfish player committed a selfish action and it was the beginning of the end for the possibility of a win. As the season has gone on I’ve increasingly rolled my eyes at some of Smith’s play, but I never got genuinely furious. I got angry, sure, but it’d be gone within the hour. This one… this night… this isn’t going away.
The next time I see Smith playing for the Flames will be too soon.
Numbers of note
63.73% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. They were good. The team was so good.
30 – Sean Monahan scored his 30th goal of the season. It’s his third 30-goal season in six years. His career high is 31, achieved in 2014-15 and 2017-18, and he has another 17 games left to pass that. He’s tied Johnny Gaudreau for the team lead in goals scored; the Flames now have two 30-goal scorers. The last time this was the case was in 2014-15, when Monahan and Jiri Hudler led the way with 31 goals apiece.
70 – Monahan’s goal was also his 70th point of the season, giving the Flames three 70-point scorers. The Lightning are the only other team who can make that claim. And – for what it’s worth – I thought he was much more engaged offensively. I don’t think Elias Lindholm ever really lost his step, I think Gaudreau did briefly and then started to enter a period of trying to do too much on his own (which was occasionally on display Saturday night, but he really can be a little wizard), and I think Monahan stayed on as the weakest link in the top line. I’ve said this before, I’ll probably say it again, but: I really hope this is the catalyst for the top line turning the corner. They need it.
7 – I mean, come on, Monahan led the way with seven shots. He’s always had a higher shooting percentage, he’s always been great at picking his spots for goal-scoring; if this is him starting to go off again then it was a hell of a start.
6 – Hamonic scored his sixth goal of the season, an absolute blast. It’s also a career high for him: he scored five goals in 2010-11, 2014-15, and 2015-16, but never more than that. He had a rough first season as a Flame, but he’s really come back into his own this year. It’s mostly shone defensively, but Hamonic seems to be rifling the puck a lot more this year. (He has 102 shots so far this season; he had 107 last year. His career high is 147 in 2015-16 and he’s on pace for 134 this year.) He’ll never compare to someone like Mark Giordano offensively, but this has been awesome.
13:56 – Oscar Fantenberg’s ice time in his second game as a Flame. (Oh my god, can you imagine playing your first ever home game as a Flame and it’s on Iggy Night of all nights?) I’m still really enjoying him as a depth option.
0.826% – Smith’s save percentage on the night. He’s at 0.895% on the season. Just…
The Flames could never surround Iginla with a good enough team. He always did so much, but he always deserved so much more. This isn’t a sport in which one good player can completely propel a team to win, but damn if he didn’t try.
The night started out great, but in the end, once again, Iginla – and all of us, really, right down to most of the team – deserved so much better.