Monday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets was not kind to the Calgary Flames.
They did so many of the right things to start. Elias Lindholm opened the scoring just over two minutes into the game—on the power play, no less—and they looked on track to exit the first period with an all-important lead.
The Flames even had another man-advantage in the first period and they peppered Connor Hellebuyck with three shots. Everything felt alright. If you and your buddies were allowed back in the Scotiabank Saddledome, you may have felt so inclined around the 15:00 mark of the first period to whisper in the ear of the friend to your right: “hey… maybe things aren’t so bad.”
What a calming thought. What a fantasy.
When many Flames fans hear the name “Nate Thompson,” they immediately think of one thing: the third game of the Flames’ first-round series against the Anaheim Ducks in 2017. Other fans bypass the specifics and feel pure, unfiltered pain. Or, on a simpler and more resigned note, apathy.
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If you don’t remember that particular playoff game (lucky you), allow me to provide some background information. Nate Thompson has been around the NHL forever, having been drafted 174 picks after Dion Phaneuf in 2003 before going on to become a successful bottom-six forward for roughly half the teams in the league.
He spent time with the Bruins, Islanders, and Lightning before joining the Anaheim Ducks in 2014, just in time to run into the Flames in two separate playoff series.
Thompson scored one goal in Anaheim’s five-game victory over Calgary in the second round of the 2015 playoffs. It was an empty-netter in game two and not particularly notable in any way.
Two years later, the Ducks met the Flames in the opening round. Thompson entered the playoffs having scored just one goal in the entire 2016-17 regular season. He scored twice in four games against Calgary in the playoffs en route to a sweep.
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Thompson’s first goal of the series came in game three. Take a look—his goal is at the 4:55 mark of the video below:
…that’s a high stick.
Everybody in the building thought it was a high stick. (I was in the building and, admittedly, a little biased. But it was a high stick). People did math to prove it was a high stick. It sure looked like Thompson’s stick was above the crossbar in nearly every replay available.
Of course, it was called a goal, and the Ducks rallied to win the game in overtime after the Flames had led 4-1. Nate Thompson allegedly also scored the series-winning goal in game four (I do not acknowledge the existence of a “game four” in that series).
Thompson left Anaheim as a free agent that off-season and played for the Senators, Kings, Canadiens, and Flyers before agreeing to a one-year deal with the Winnipeg Jets in October. Monday’s game was Thompson’s fourth against Calgary this season.
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He scored the game-tying goal. That, in and of itself, would not be enough for me to dedicate over 500 words of this column to Thompson’s backstory as an NHL player. What really drove it home, however, was the controversial aspect of it. In other words—he did it again!
Place your bets in the comments section for how far Thompson’s left foot travelled to redirect Dylan DeMelo’s wrist shot past Jacob Markstrom.
In the National Hockey League’s book of “official rules” for the 2020-21 season, Rule 37.4 states as such:
Distinct Kicking Motion – Plays that involve a puck entering the net as a direct result of a “distinct kicking motion” shall be ruled NO GOAL. A “distinct kicking motion,” for purposes of Video Review, is one where the video makes clear that an attacking Player has deliberately propelled the puck with a kick of his foot or skate and the puck subsequently enters the net. A goal cannot be scored on a play where an attacking Player propels the puck with his skate into the net (even by means of a subsequent deflection off of another Player) using a “distinct kicking motion.” A goal also cannot be scored on a play where an attacking Player kicks any equipment (stick, glove, helmet, etc.) at the puck, including kicking the blade of his own stick, causing the puck to cross the goal line. A puck that deflects into the net off an attacking Player’s skate who does not use a “distinct kicking motion” shall be ruled a GOAL. A puck that is directed into the net by an attacking Players’ skate shall also be ruled a GOAL, as long as no “distinct kicking motion” is evident. (See also Rule 49.2)
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In theory, the league and/or the officiating crew used the bolded portion of the above rule to finalize its decision on the Thompson goal. It makes sense as part of the rule, which was initially created to prevent skates from thrashing around wildly in close proximity to a vulnerable goaltender. As long as a player’s skate does not make a “distinct kicking motion”—i.e. moving forward, in the direction of the puck—a redirection is fine.
Thompson’s goal on Monday occurred as the result of his left foot swinging forward by roughly a full stride’s length before he deflected the puck in with the inside edge of his skate. The league’s decision—which came after video review and upheld the call on the ice—makes no sense when read alongside its corresponding rule.
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According to the letter of the law, it is perfectly fine to deflect the puck into the net with a largely stationary skate. Thompson used a distinct kicking motion and then, as his leg finished swinging, he directed the puck into the net with his foot. The evidence suggesting the goal should have been disallowed far surpasses that saying it needed to be upheld.
The goal appeared to rattle the Flames and they allowed another under two minutes later. With four minutes remaining in the first period, Calgary looked to be set to head into the first intermission having played a strong first period; with 1:47 left, they suddenly trailed 2-1 and seemed primed to collapse.
That, they did. Mark Scheifele scored his second goal of the night 3:31 into the second period. Andrew Copp made it 4-1 exactly 11 minutes later. If the Flames had any hope of making a game out of it in the third period, Pierre-Luc Dubois quickly put a stop to that by making it 5-1 just 64 seconds into the final frame.
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Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom had another night that might best be characterized as “bleh.” He allowed four goals on 23 shots before being pulled after the second period in favour of David Rittich. Markstrom wasn’t really at fault on any of the Jets’ goals but he still needs to be better than an .826 save percentage.
Head coach Darryl Sutter puzzlingly kept Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki out of the lineup on Monday, opting instead to use Joakim Nordstrom and Michael Stone. It did not go very well, with Nordstrom and Stone both posting negative relative high-danger chance and expected goals percentages at even strength.
The Flames have just 19 games left to play and still sit two points back of the Montreal Canadiens despite having played six more games. The odds of Calgary making the playoffs are extremely slim and the team’s focus should be shifted to future seasons. Dube and Valimaki are expected to be key components of the Flames’ future. Scratching them for pending UFA known-quantity players makes very little sense.
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If the season ended today, the Flames would own the ninth pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. They stand a decent chance of moving into the top-five by the end of the season, with Vancouver, Columbus, San Jose, and New Jersey all looking reasonably likely to pass Calgary in the standings.
This might not be a bad thing. The Flames are one of just two active NHL teams to have never picked in the top three of a draft; the other only entered the league in 2017. In other words, they’re overdue.
Montreal controls its own destiny and is far more likely than either Calgary or Vancouver to make the playoffs. For those two western Canadian teams, making the postseason is a pipe-dream.
It’s time to take a good, long look at what the future has in store.
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