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What to take from three Calgary Flames ‘reality check’ losses

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Photo credit:Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
10 months ago
Since the Calgary Flames returned from their COVID-related pause, they’ve played five games away from the Saddledome. They won the first two, albeit against a pair of sub-.500 teams, and then they headed south and rattled off three consecutive losses against three of the top teams in the National Hockey League.
After a trio of games where they were outscored by a combined 16-6, let’s unpack the significance of a trio of games where they were sometimes unlucky, sometimes bad, and sometimes both – all in very specific ways.

Let’s think about results

Alright, from a pure results standpoint, this was a bad week. From a pure all-situations goals situation, these three games were part of just 11 all season where the Flames’ goals for percentage was 33% or lower – as in, three of 11 games where the Flames were doubled-up offensively this season.
Here’s the full list:
  • Oct. 16: 5-2 L to Edmonton
  • Nov. 9: 4-1 L to San Jose
  • Nov. 11: 4-2 L to Montreal
  • Nov. 12: 2-1 OTL to Toronto
  • Nov. 16: 2-1 OTL to Philadelphia
  • Nov. 27: 4-2 L to Winnipeg
  • Dec. 9: 2-1 L to Carolina
  • Dec. 11: 4-2 L to Boston
  • Jan. 4: 6-2 L to Florida
  • Jan. 6: 4-1 L to Tampa Bay
  • Jan. 7: 6-3 L to Carolina
But these scores include empty-netters and special teams play, instance that have randomness involved. Most of hockey is played at five-on-five and most of our measures of if a hockey team is any good are five-on-five measures for that reason.
Here’s how five-on-five scoring was in those 11 “one-sided” games:
  • Oct. 16: 2-1 Edmonton
  • Nov. 9: 2-1 San Jose
  • Nov. 11: 2-1 Calgary
  • Nov. 12: 1-1 tie
  • Nov. 16: 1-1 tie
  • Nov. 27: 3-1 Winnipeg
  • Dec. 9: 1-1 tie
  • Dec. 11: 4-1 Boston
  • Jan. 4: 4-2 Florida
  • Jan. 6: 4-1 Tampa Bay
  • Jan. 7: 5-3 Carolina
There were really only about five games (bolded) this season where the Flames were appreciably worse than their opponents. Three of the five were on this road trip.

Let’s think about process

The Flames were at times unlucky, at times bad, and at times both unlucky and bad during the road trip.
Unlucky
Against Carolina, the Flames had a 12-8 edge in high danger scoring chances. Carolina scored on three of their eight chances, while the Flames buried just two of 12.
PDO is a proxy for measuring luck, and is a number that’s a player’s on-ice shooting and save percentage added together. (All things being equal, it ends up at 1.000.) 10 players had just atrocious puck luck with PDOs well .900: Tyler Pitlick, Nikita Zadorov, Brett Ritchie, Trevor Lewis, Adam Ruzicka, Blake Coleman, Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin.
Coleman’s bad puck luck was a shame given he led the Flames with 19 shots at five-on-five, 10 more than any other player. Hanifin and Andersson’s puck luck was a shame given they usually get tough match-ups. (The Flames did not score a five-on-five goal while that pairing was on the ice.)
Bad
The Flames have played five games this season where their expected goals percentage was below 40% – as in, games where they didn’t really have much of a chance of winning and would need hot goaltending or insane puck luck to steal points. The five games? Oct. 21 against Detroit, Oct. 23 against Washington, Oct. 28 against Pittsburgh, Dec. 5 against Vegas and Jan. 6 against Tampa.
Against Tampa, as with Vegas, the Flames’ big challenge was getting quality scoring chances by getting inside the home-plate area of the offensive zone. (Darryl Sutter noted that they didn’t do enough below the circles to generate scoring chances.)
On an individual basis, the Flames had only a few skaters with expected goals percentages above 50%. The players who did crack that mark were Pitlick, Zadorov, Coleman, Mikael Backlund, Erik Gudbranson, Dube and Ritchie. Everybody else was, collectively, back on their heels for much of the three games.
Unlucky and bad
The Florida game featured the Flames’ best offensive expected goals performance of the season, with nearly five expected goals at five-on-five. They only scored twice. They also had their worst defensive expected goals performance, with nearly four expected goals against (they allowed four).

The takeaways

The Florida game was river hockey, with the Flames running around in all three zones basically all game. Eventually, their puck luck hit a snag and the game got away from them. (In theory, sticking to their structure would’ve led to the game being less loose overall.)
The Tampa game was playoff hockey, with Tampa owning the middle of the ice and grinding out scoring chances with a counter-punch style. It was really similar to that Vegas loss in this respect. If nothing else, these are the types of games the Flames have a challenge with because of their lack of depth on their bottom six: Tampa was able to use match-ups to neutralize the Flames’ top six and then made hay against either a tired top six or with preferred match-ups against the bottom six.
The Carolina game featured challenges of execution. A few goals came right after the Flames lost face-offs. A few came off of rebounds that the team couldn’t clear out. One came as the team was still reeling from the previous goal, something that also happened in Tampa.
If you came to the conclusion that the Flames could use more scoring depth… well, yeah, they could. Their lineup construction allows deeper teams an opportunity to neutralize their top players on the road, forcing the Flames either to lean on their bottom six depth too much or shift to lines that spread their scoring out over a bunch of lines (which could spread them a bit thin).
The Flames are a pretty good hockey team this season. But as constructed, the Flames are a team that can be competitive against good teams but seem destined to lose close games to them – even if they execute their systems perfectly. They don’t need to completely overhaul everything, but they need to give their players a little bit of scoring help.

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