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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Flames 2, Canadiens 1: Welcome (back) to Sutter hockey

Sam Bennett has seen a lot in his tenure with the Flames.

He’s played on the first line. He’s been buried on the fourth line. Bennett has gone back-and-forth from being a playoff saviour and a four-goal hero to a healthy scratch.

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Previous Flames head coaches Bob Hartley, Glen Gulutzan, Bill Peters, and Geoff Ward all failed to unlock Bennett’s potential on a regular basis. At this point, it looks unlikely that Bennett will ever become the number-one centre many pegged him to be when the Flames selected him fourth in the 2014 Draft.

Still, there could be a valuable player somewhere under there. New Flames coach Darryl Sutter has shown a knack for getting the most out of his players over his 18-year NHL head coaching career. For Bennett, who reportedly requested a trade earlier this season, Sutter could represent just the ticket towards him finally carving out a regular niche in the NHL.

“For me, personally, I think I can take it as a fresh start,” Bennett told Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson on Wednesday. “I’m excited. It’s really kind of like a reset and I can start to try to find a role again.”

No kidding, it’s a reset. Given the Flames’ less-than-stellar recent stretch of play, Sutter should have had no inclination against making changes to his team’s lineup in advance of his debut behind the bench on Thursday.

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Sutter’s first major deployment change as Flames coach was to unite Bennett with fellow underperformer Josh Leivo on a new line centred by Derek Ryan. Entering Thursday’s contest, these three players had only spent 1:16 of ice-time together at even strength.

The logic behind the move made sense. Bennett can be a thunderous player who is adept at getting in on the forecheck and retrieving pucks. Ryan is an underrated playmaker and can add a defensive conscience. Leivo has some size, too, but his best attribute is likely his shot.

These three players woke up on Thursday morning having combined for just 10 points in 56 games. That night, the new line provided all the offense for the Flames against the Canadiens, with each player recording two points en route to a 2-1 victory.

Leivo was the star of the show, tripling his goal total on the year by scoring his second and third goals back-to-back in the second period. The 27-year-old winger had been mired in a brutal slump that seemed due to end, considering his position near the top of the Flames’ team leaderboards for 5v5 individual high-danger chances/60 (6th), 5v5 individual expected goals/60 (4th), and 5v5 individual scoring chances/60 (3rd).

His perceived struggles to start the year had mostly been the result of poor finishing fortune both on the part of himself and his linemates. Even after his two-goal outburst, Leivo still sits below many of his similarly-deployed teammates when considering his 5v5 on-ice shooting success rate (7.84%), although it’s far better than it was a week ago. His percentages still have yet to fully normalize positively for him. In short: as long as he keeps getting shifts, he’s likely to continue scoring.

Ryan, meanwhile, continues to be the ultimate “glue guy” for this Flames team. In 2018-19, he was instrumental in the success of the Flames down the stretch while playing with Andrew Mangiapane and Garnet Hathaway. Last season, he helped Milan Lucic overcome some early struggles and served as the centre on a good line with the big winger and Dillon Dube.

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Much like his new coach, Ryan has shown a habit of bringing out the best in certain players. He has already done a solid job this year of elevating Bennett whenever they play together and his chemistry with Leivo has been palpable.

PLAYER 1 PLAYER 2 5v5 TOI TOGETHER 5v5 xGF% 5v5 CF%
Derek Ryan Josh Leivo 19:27 84.65 74.07
Derek Ryan Not Josh Leivo 94:15 52.53 49.06
Not Derek Ryan Josh Leivo 197:43 52.81 49.13
Derek Ryan Sam Bennett 20:39 67.93 66.67
Derek Ryan Not Sam Bennett 93:03 52.56 48.61
Not Derek Ryan Sam Bennett 262:07 46.09 47.35

The Flames have struggled for much of this year at getting their depth players to produce on a consistent basis. If Bennett, Ryan, and Leivo can form an effective bottom-six scoring line for the Flames, that could be huge in helping this team along on its quest for a playoff spot.

Thursday’s game might have been the Flames’ most consistent effort of the season. They limited the Canadiens to less than 0.50 expected goals for at even strength in all three periods while out-generating the opposition in each 20-minute frame. The Flames held Montreal to just three total shots on two power plays and, overall, out-shot the Habs by a 29-18 margin.

That’s right: after allowing more than 30 shots in 16 out of its first 26 games, Calgary surrendered fewer than 20 shots in Thursday’s game for the first time this season.

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The Flames played faster hockey on Thursday and looked better in transition. They also displayed a good deal of belligerence, most notably exemplified when Milan Lucic fought Josh Anderson. (The team also threw 22 hits).

The only real downside to this game from the Flames’ perspective was that Corey Perry scored against them to spoil Jacob Markstrom’s shutout. The Flame-killer scored his fifth goal of the season at the 10:15 mark of the third period, deflecting a Shea Weber point shot past Markstrom to make it a 2-1 game.

Perry is reviled in Calgary mostly because of his playoff antics and success at the Flames’ expense. With Perry in the fold, the Ducks won eight of the nine playoff games they played against Calgary. Perry’s Dallas Stars dispatched the Flames in the first round last season, with the veteran winger contributing a goal and two assists.

The Canadiens’ only goal on Thursday was Perry’s 18th career regular-season goal in 61 games against the Flames. He now has 47 points in those contests, having only scored more frequently against the Arizona Coyotes (57 points in 69 games) and the San Jose Sharks (51 points in 70 games). In short: your frustration with Perry is likely justified.

Still, Flames fans got a happy ending on Thursday night. Perry’s Canadiens lost and the gap in the Canadian Division standings between the two teams became considerably tighter. Both Calgary and Montreal have won 12 games this season, with the Flames having played 27 games to the Canadiens’ 26; however, owing to four more overtime losses, Montreal (31) still sits four points ahead of Calgary (27) for the fourth and final playoff spot.

The Three Gould Stars

It’s a play on my last name, see.

These “Gould Stars” will be used to recognize players who were noticeable—for reasons both good and bad—in the game being discussed. This is not a list of the three best players.

  • Gould Star One: Jacob Markstrom put forth an encouraging performance on Thursday, despite being relatively untested. The big goaltender made 17 saves on 18 shots for a stellar .944 save percentage and held the fort late in the game as his team nursed a one-goal lead. Markstrom now sits at 9-7-2 on the season to go along with a .909 save percentage.

  • Gould Star Two: Another day, another great game for Noah Hanifin, who looks to be emerging as a top-pairing defenseman this season. Sutter deployed both Hanifin and Chris Tanev for over 20 minutes at 5v5 and the duo rewarded the new coach with another fantastic showing. Hanifin ranked fourth on the team with a 72.05 on-ice expected goals percentage figure at 5v5 and, individually, generated 0.12 expected goals at 5v5 to rank fifth on the team (and first among defensemen on either side).
  • Gould Star Three: Mikael Backlund played on a line with Andrew Mangiapane and Milan Lucic on Thursday. The combination worked relatively well and Backlund was the only Flame to individually generate multiple high-danger chances at even-strength. He led all Flames skaters with 0.46 individual expected goals at 5v5 but is now on a five-game goal-scoring drought.

The Flames will take on the Canadiens again on Saturday in a crucial game to help clarify potential playoff seeding. The contest will begin at 5:00 p.m. MT and will be broadcast on Sportsnet West, Pacific, East, and 960, as well as CityTV and TVA Sports.