Back on Dec. 8, the Flames took over the top spot in the Western Conference. It was a delight that they made it there at all, and that late in the season at that; a fun little blip as we got to look forward to the start of the Flames’ window opening. But then they kept pace with the top teams in the Central. And in January, took it back over. And aside from a day here and there, just never really gave it up.
This was both the most inevitable and unexpected conclusion to the regular season. They’re really the best in the West. Over the course of a 79-game season, they’re really that good.
Feel of the game
The Flames came out dominating, looking like they knew exactly what this game meant and ready to get things over with. It didn’t work out to their immediate favour, though, and certainly not when the Sharks started controlling game play, taking advantage of a floundering Dalton Prout and opening the scoring. Another game with a good, fast start that amounted to nothing; what’s new these days?
Except just under three minutes later, TJ Brodie had some moves to get in close, though he couldn’t capitalize off of them. Then Johnny Gaudreau slid a perfect pass to Sean Monahan, and the game was tied. Thirty-one-seconds later, the third line was playing give-and-go, and Mark Jankowski got them the lead. Forty-four seconds after that, Prout redeemed himself by collecting a great Andrew Mangiapane feed, getting fancy, and making it 3-1. And then right after that, the 3M line nearly gave the team a three-goal lead.
Within the span of about two minutes, all four Flames lines and their bottom defence pairing generated five scoring chances, three of which went in. It was over. The Sharks had their small bursts, but the Flames were ready to completely take control, and kept trying to create offence in the second period – all while the Sharks did basically nothing. That fourth goal did go in, courtesy of Mikael Backlund, and we were left with a completely listless Sharks team being dominated by a hungry Flames version, every single skater circling them and coming back for more. It wasn’t a battle for the division, or even a fight to stay alive: it was a slaughter.
At least until the third period started, and the Sharks seemed to realize they had to get going, all the while the Flames seemed content to let the game play out as it would. Though the Flames did wake back up a little after the Sharks made it 4-2, with the 3M line finally getting that goal to restore the three-goal lead, and the third line going for it immediately after. The Flames couldn’t score again, and a late Sharks goal only really served to take a point off of the Flames’ goal differential, but the better team skated away with ease.
One team was ready to take the division; the other team was ready to concede.
The good news
Four. Lines. It isn’t just that the Flames took advantage of their opportunities to score three goals in 1:15, it’s that they had the personnel to decimate the Sharks with a relentless attack. Three lines scored shift after shift after shift, and it wasn’t too far off from all four lines getting goals in that time frame. Good bursts like that are probably going to be much harder to come by in the playoffs, but that the Flames can send out wave after wave of attackers and all of them are good enough to score is going to be tough to defend against. We’ve been saying it all year, but now that their place in the standings is cemented, let’s say it one last time: this team has forward depth and it’s going to make them scary.
A couple of specific player shoutouts:
James Neal, for picking up right where he left off against the Ducks. He looks ready to go for the playoffs, and easily could have picked up more than just the one assist he got. Does this version replace the one that’s been dressed in a Flames jersey all year? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s nice to know he still has it in him.
Sean Monahan, for also picking up where he left off. There was question surrounding his play until the game against the Ducks; a little less so, now. The games aren’t going to matter again for another 10 days or so, so we’ll see where this goes, but he’s still got it in him, too.
The entire 3M line, for being their typical relentless selves. They were ready to score, and came close way more times than their actual points tallies indicated.
TJ Brodie, for going up and down the ice and really working to create offence and show a lot of creativity along the way. He was partially at fault on the Sharks’ second goal, but a dynamic Brodie looks like an engaged Brodie, and he looked like he was absolutely feeling it and raring to go.
Mark Giordano, just for being Mark Giordano. Really, though, this was a true team effort from top to bottom – and he probably takes some credit for that.
The bad news
Prout’s goal was gorgeous, and just the right amount of piling on the Sharks to make the game look like it was done. Unfortunately, he was heavily at fault for the Sharks’ first two goals: being unable to corral the puck, giving it away, getting spun around. The silver lining to this, though, is that Prout is probably the team’s 10th best defenceman. He’s not bad to have, but he shouldn’t be in the starting six – more of a last resort kind of player.
The powerplay went zero-for-six. It’s good the Flames were controlling play so well they forced the Sharks into taking penalties; it’s bad they couldn’t properly make them pay. The Sharks even got a couple of shorthanded chances out of it, some in which the Flames were lucky the puck simply rolled off their stick or they shot it wide. The powerplay experienced a brief return to life against the Ducks, but there’s still plenty they need to work on there. Not sure if their switching back to the old units is an indictment on anything, either.
You create your own luck, and the Flames very much deserved the win, but it’s maybe worth a partial asterisk in that the Sharks did play the night before, and a lot of the game came about as a result of the Flames’ three quick goals. You don’t get to pick your opponent, but it’s another one of those “temper your expectations” things – the Flames were good, but possibly not actually as good as they looked.
Can the Sharks grow up, please? When the Flames were beating them on Dec. 31, Aaron Dell speared Sam Bennett, and things got goony and out of control because the officials wouldn’t call anything. With the Flames beating them March 31, there was an unnecessary high hit on Matthew Tkachuk, but at least this time the officials did something about it. Man, though – talk about an unlikeable team. The Flames have one goal left for the regular season: don’t get hurt. Here’s to sportsmanship being applied there.
Numbers of note
49.37% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF. They had a 60% CF in the second period, which was definitely their best frame; in the first they gave ground to the Sharks until they scored three goals, and in the third the Sharks were the more motivated team. The Flames were the ones who capitalized, though, and put the Sharks in that position.
3 – The number of shots the Sharks had in the second period. The Flames had 14 in that frame, by the way.
1 – Prout scored his first NHL goal since April 8, 2016. It was awesome. Michael Stone and Oscar Fantenberg are now the only Flames skaters without a goal this season.
4 – The number of Flames skaters who didn’t register a point: Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm, Travis Hamonic, and Brodie. It’s especially a shame for Brodie because he really had some good chances.
6, 5 – Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund led the way with shots on net. They each got a goal, but Frolik definitely could have had more.
33 – Noah Hanifin has a new career high in points. He had 32 in 2017-18.
4 – The number of points Gaudreau, the only Flame with multiple points (two) in the game, needs to hit triple digits. Three games left, and nothing to play for. It’ll be curious to see if he can do it, and how much of a chance he’ll get.
49 – Forget the loser point, that’s a lot of straight up wins. Forty-nine times this season you’ve sat down and watched the Flames win a game. You know the last time that happened? The 1988-89 season, when they collected 54 wins. They can’t get there this year – but 50 would be a nice number to reach, wouldn’t it? It would only be the second time in their history.
+61 – The Flames eclipsed the +60 mark in goal differential. Think they’ll stay there? They were a -30 last season. Finishing their next three games with a combined goal differential of +9 – and it’s well within the realm of possibility they can do that – gives them a turnaround of +100 from 2017-18.
The Flames have just three games left and they’re all meaningless. There are no teams left to scoreboard watch. This week can just play out, hopefully injury-free, and then we’ll get to see how these guys fare in the real test.
Remember: it’s still just the beginning.