It’s not that often you could say the team that lost by four goals may very well have been the better one overall. But… well…
Feel of the game
The Flames came ready to play. Unfortunately for them, so did Frederik Andersen, who seemed to have little problem fending off wave after wave of attack. Still, the game started exactly as you’d think a game between two of the top teams in the NHL would: fast and aggressive, with both getting their chances. The Leafs struck first with Johnny Gaudreau sitting in the box for a defensive zone slash, but again, you had to just think: whatever, they’re the Flames, they’ll probably get it back.
The end of the first period didn’t do much to soothe that notion, though. A weird bounce put the Leafs up by two, and a breakaway-turned save-turned non-kick quickly made it 3-0. The Flames, as a whole, played really well, it’s just that their own chances wouldn’t go in, while the Leafs could apparently do whatever they wanted and it would somehow end up in the back of their net – through no fault of David Rittich, at that.
The Flames didn’t seem deterred, though. They came out for the second much as they had for the first, continuing to try to score; much as they had in the first, the Leafs got another break and made it 4-0. It took a Flames powerplay – their one and only finally called near the end of the second – to get them on the board, but even then, heading into the third period down three goals facing Andersen seemed a daunting task.
And it kind of was. The Flames still tried to score, but by that point, the game felt very “whatever” – Rittich finally let in a bad goal, the Flames got one back, and seconds later the Leafs just scored again, riding out to a 6-2 final. The Leafs didn’t have much to play for come the third period, and as time fell off the clock, neither did the Flames.
The good news
The result was bad, but the Flames played legitimately well. They were the more dangerous team; it’s just that Andersen had a really great night. Not all of his big saves were flashy – a sign of a goalie well in position – but the Flames did send wave after wave of offence (all four lines got in on it, the first and third lines in particular, I felt). They just couldn’t beat him – but damn, if the effort wasn’t there. Especially when it came to keeping the puck in the zone: individual moments by Sean Monahan and Oliver Kylington in particular really stand out to me in hindsight, but the team was working really hard to score and generate offensive zone pressure. They play like that again, and the next game probably goes a whole lot better.
Specific player shoutouts, offensive-wise: Austin Czarnik had this one shift in particular he just went absolutely nuts, but he was buzzing a fair bit alongside Mark Jankowski, as well. And I really do think this is the top line starting to turn things back around after a sleepy February: Monahan looked really engaged offensively against the Wild and it was carrying through in this game, though not as dramatically. Rasmus Andersson and Andrew Mangiapane also had some strong moments (this is now two games in a row it seems Mangiapane has been far ahead of his linemates in the offensive zone, too).
Even when the Flames were facing a four-goal deficit early in the game, their demeanour didn’t seem to change. Things petered out once it became clear they weren’t going to win later on, but that they were still able to play a good game most of the night is one of those annoying moral victories one could point to and remark that the night wasn’t a total loss (other than in the literal sense). They still battled most of the game – and with a playoff spot and probable home ice advantage all but locked up, that’s a positive sign carrying forward.
The bad news
Mistakes happen every game, but it’s not every game they turn into goals. The Leafs’ third goal was probably the most dramatic in terms of “why did it come to this”, though. For as much as the team worked in the offensive zone, a bad pass by Mikael Backlund, combined with Noah Hanifin completely unable to keep up, turned into a breakaway – and Travis Hamonic’s inability to force the Leafs’ trailer out quickly made it 3-0, and was probably the first nail in the coffin. On their first and fourth goals, the Flames let a Leaf get open in precarious position to score. Everything seemed to go right for the Leafs while everything went wrong for the Flames, but those were all instances that, with a little more attention to detail, could have been completely avoided. It’s not a great trend following the Wild game, especially when the Wild’s first goal that evening was the result of letting a player hang out alone in the slot, as well.
Rittich’s numbers were rough, but you really couldn’t blame any of the first four goals on him too much (an extra save here or there would have been nice, but they were either high danger chances, an absolutely bizarre bounce that would not be replicated even if the Leafs tried, and already being taken somewhat out of the play making a dramatic breakaway stop already – and he had to do that twice, too). The fifth and sixth goals, though? Not great. Though it didn’t look like the Flames were going to score enough to win, the fifth and sixth goals against completely sealed it.
Speculation time! What I’m most worried about, though, is that the Flames will immediately turn back to a goaltender who singlehandedly creates goals against instead of the one 10 years his junior who has been largely better all season, has more athleticism left in the tank, is much more likely to be better the following season (a time in which the Flames’ goaltending will be – once again, ever since Miikka Kiprusoff retired – in serious question), and doesn’t fight with his own defencemen for six seconds behind the net. Rittich didn’t have a great game, but he didn’t have a disastrous one, either. And he deserves the chance to get back-to-back starts and get back into a groove. Period.
Numbers of note
58.4% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, but score effects,” but that doesn’t account for the 61.54% first period they had, with a particular ramping up after the Leafs had just one goal. They were just legitimately good, even with the score trying to tell a casual observer they were not.
60% – And their 5v5 HDCF, including 63.64% in the first period. Seriously – the Leafs were getting the majority of the breaks (their second goal compared to the puck just hopping over Mark Giordano’s stick with a clear shot at an open net comes to mind as but one example).
0.946% – Andersen’s save percentage on the night. He is a 0.924% goalie on the season, tied for seventh in save percentage among all goalies with at least 20 games played. At even strength, he’s a 0.936% goalie, third league-wide under the same criteria. The Flames were good; he was better.
-3 – Plus/minus can be extremely screwy, but it’s maybe worth pointing out that the top line, Hanifin, and Hamonic appeared to be the most victimized Flames, on the ice for three even strength goals against each. So, while it looks like the top line’s offensive games are coming around – and they need to – maybe a little more attention can be focused on this side of things, too. Scoring one’s way out of trouble is something the Flames were able to utilize earlier in the season, but as has become extremely clear, it’s not a reliable every-game solution.
0 – Michael Frolik was the only Flame to not get a shot on net. It’s probably more noteworthy, in this case, that almost every single Flame had at least a shot on net – not that Frolik didn’t have one. Garnet Hathaway and Jankowski led the way with four, so at least there continues to be little reason to worry about the bottom six.
11:51 – Mangiapane played the least out of all Flames forwards, but it was also only the third time he’s exceeded 11 minutes of ice time since mid-January.
18:09 – Kylington returned to the lineup from injury and received the second most ice time he has all season. The most he’s played this year was 18:59 on Jan. 13, a 7-1 win over the Coyotes.
Though the Flames are now only three points up on the Sharks, the sky isn’t even close to falling. The Flames genuinely played well and deserved a better fate than what they got. It happens. There’s still plenty to like about them, and there will probably be plenty more as the final month of the regular season closes out.