What a difference a new bench boss can make.
Sure, Darryl Sutter was technically the team’s coach in the Flames’ back-to-back losses to Edmonton and Ottawa on March 6 and 7. The Viking, AB product still had yet to make his full return to the organization when the Flames played those games; instead, assistant Ryan Huska manned the bench and was listed as coach of record on the game sheets.
Sutter cleared the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols in time to make his second debut in Calgary on March 11. His new Flames team showed early hallmarks of Sutter’s past success, grinding the opposing Montreal Canadiens to a halt while carrying the puck through the neutral zone with refreshing speed.
On Saturday, the Flames built on their previous performance to deliver a resoundingly dominant victory over their closest competitor in the North Division. Montreal could only muster 1.6 total expected goals—Calgary’s fourth-best defensive figure of the season—with the Flames countered with 3.41 of their own.
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The Flames out-chanced the Canadiens 24 to 13 at even strength and generated more than twice as many high-danger opportunities than their opponents, leading nine to four in that category. It was truly an excellent showing and the Flames deserved to get a win out of it. They certainly needed one.
Spoiler alert: they won. Sean Monahan scored two goals, including the game-winner, and Jacob Markstrom recorded 24 saves to out-duel Carey Price en route to a critical 3-1 Flames victory.
Monahan recorded his 200th and 201st career goals in the victory, becoming the first member of the 2013 Draft class—yes, even ahead of Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov—to reach that milestone. He’s just the fifth Calgary draft pick (and the first since Theoren Fleury) to record 200 goals with the franchise.
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Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman commented after the win that Montreal had “just let Calgary up off the mat.” Both the Flames and Canadiens entered this set of back-to-back games with the ability to dramatically re-shape their seasons with victories.
Had the script flipped entirely and Montreal took both Thursday and Saturday’s games in regulation, they would currently possess a 10-point cushion on the Flames for the final playoff spot in the North Division. Instead, the Flames played two full 60-minute games and managed to push things firmly in their direction, climbing up to within two points of the Canadiens with just one more game played.
Talk about clutch.
Monahan’s first goal came after a thunderous forecheck from linemate Brett Ritchie against Canadiens forward Joel Armia. Ritchie freed the puck for Monahan to take, and the big centre cut in front of the net, spun around to get the puck on his forehand, and roofed it over Price’s glove.
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On paper, Ritchie is an odd fit on a line with Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. He once scored 16 goals in a season a long time ago; he’s collected a total of just 14 in the four years since. Evolving-Hockey has adjudged Ritchie’s play, in isolation, over the last three years as worth two full wins below the league’s replacement-level.
Ritchie is capable of doing some positive things on the ice. He is typically successful when he wants to use his 6’4″, 220-pound frame to separate a player from the puck, as he did on Monahan’s opening marker. His shot is decent and his right-handedness makes him an attractive option basically by default.
With a spotty track record at the NHL level, Ritchie may not be long for the Flames’ top line. On Saturday, he posted the worst on-ice defensive numbers of any Calgary skater, with the Flames surrendering 0.41 expected goals against per 60 at even strength with Ritchie on the ice. He attempted just two shots, although both counted as scoring chances.
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Sutter’s teams have historically controlled puck possession. They have also consistently ranked among the league’s more physical groups. Ritchie certainly helps tick that second box but only a larger sample will indicate whether he’s capable of successfully complementing two top-line calibre forwards in Gaudreau and Monahan.
A colleague of Ritchie’s on the fringes of the Flames’ roster, defenseman Oliver Kylington made his return to the lineup on Saturday and put forth an excellent performance. Skating in just his fourth game of the season, the 23-year-old defenseman played the fifth-most among all Calgary skaters with 16:01 at even strength.
Kylington did not receive any deployment on the Flames’ special teams in the game but he still managed to positively stand out at even strength. His pairing with Juuso Valimaki saw very sheltered deployment but still made the most of it, with the Flames controlling 72.02% of the expected goals with Kylington on the ice.
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When Valimaki and Kylington patrolled the Flames’ back-end, Calgary outshot Montreal by a 9-3 margin and mustered 11 scoring chances to the Canadiens’ three. Kylington has spent much of this season competing with Nikita Nesterov for a spot in the line-up; Nesterov has increasingly posted mediocre results despite typically facing opposing bottom-six forwards.
In his 21 games, Nesterov has only twice exceeded the on-ice expected goals rate Kylington posted on Saturday. The two players have posted almost identical defensive numbers this season, with Kylington’s 5v5 on-ice expected goals against/60 figure of 2.12 just barely exceeding Nesterov’s average of 2.10.
Kylington was one of the Flames’ more effective defensive presences last year, ranking just behind Rasmus Andersson (2.13) and TJ Brodie (2.19) and ahead of Erik Gustafsson (2.34), Noah Hanifin (2.48), Travis Hamonic (2.58), and Michael Stone (2.83) by averaging 2.25 on-ice expected goals against/60 at 5v5. He was, and remains, solidly NHL-calibre in his own end.
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While his offense remains a work in progress, Kylington’s advancing defensive results and obvious skating ability should cement him as a fixture in the Flames’ top-six on the back-end going forward. Evolving-Hockey‘s model values Nesterov’s play in Calgary as having been worth 1.3 goals below replacement to this point, with his defensive results equalling zero goals above or below replacement.
Conversely, in 2019-20, Kylington’s defensive play was worth 1.3 goals above replacement. His overall figure was torpedoed by his poor offensive results (worth -2.2 GAR) but defensive ability clearly provided a kernel of value. Kylington was among the Flames’ better players on Saturday and has earned at least a few more games next to Valimaki.

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.
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  • Gould Star One: Poor Johnny Gaudreau was held off the board on Saturday but still managed to fool Price with a 100% illegal goal. Gaudreau’s non-tally was nicely set up by Brett Ritchie; late in the third period, with Calgary up 3-1, Montreal’s Josh Anderson also had a goal waved off due to a kicking motion.
  • Gould Star Two: Milan Lucic hit double-digit points on the year with his assist on Mikael Backlund’s insurance goal in the second period. In case you were curious, Lucic now has 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in his 106 games with the Flames; meanwhile, James Neal is up to 40 points (24 goals, 16 assists) in 75 games with the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Gould Star Three: Would you believe it if I said Matthew Tkachuk has scored at better than a point-per-game pace over his last 11 contests? Tkachuk has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in that span and recorded the primary helper on Monahan’s game-winning goal on Saturday. Unsurprisingly, Tkachuk wreaking havoc in front of Price helped cause the puck to find Monahan’s stick and, then, the back of the net.
The Flames will return to action on Monday, welcoming the Edmonton Oilers for one of the most important Battles of Alberta in many years. The two teams will hit the ice at 7:00 p.m. MT for a game that will be broadcast on Sportsnet One, Sportsnet West, and Sportsnet 960 The Fan.