The Calgary Flames have had a rough month of January. Heading into the month, they seemed like a good bet to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race until the bitter end, having put their rough October well behind them. Unfortunately, January saw some of their old October habits creep back in and, with the help of some horrendous puck luck, the Flames went 5-7-1 between Jan. 1 and the All-Star Break.
So, what happened? How did a team that looked so composed fall apart for much of the month, to the point where their coach called them “embarrassing” and “pathetic” at various points?
#1: Their Goaltending Has Struggled
After a rough October, the Flames appeared to have their net solidified with Chad Johnson going on a really strong run throughout November and December that seemingly cemented his status as Calgary’s de facto top gun. However, both Johnson and Brian Elliott have struggled to make key saves (for the most part) in January and both goalies have posted losing records so far in 2017.
Johnson has an .887 save percentage in 2017. Elliott has posted an .892 save percentage. Their performances have prompted Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan to declare that goaltending will be a “win and you’re in” proposition for the time being.
#2: Their Big Guns Have Gone Cold
The good news is that Sean Monahan has seemingly begun to find his offensive stride, as he quietly put together a goal-scoring streak during the midst of the Flames’ January struggles. He ended up with 11 points in 13 games prior to the All-Star Break. But besides Monahan, the Flames’ most expensive – and biggest – guns have been ice cold in January.
Even after a two-point performance prior to the All-Star Break against Ottawa, Johnny Gaudreau has just six points in 13 January games. Sam Bennett? One point in 12 games. Troy Brouwer? Zero points in eight games. It’s really hard to win when your best players aren’t your best players.
#3: Odd Line Combinations
The Flames’ coaching staff has seemingly separated its stars among three primary lines to make line-matching more challenging for their opponents, especially on the road. Until some tweaks before the All-Star Break, their lines looked something like this:
Matthew Tkachuk – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik
Johnny Gaudreau – Sam Bennett – Alex Chiasson
Kris Versteeg – Sean Monahan – Troy Brouwer
Lance Bouma – Matt Stajan – Micheal Ferland
(Bennett and Monahan occasionally swapped lines.)
With these line combinations, even with Bennett and Monahan swapping, it leaves between one and two ice-cold players on each line. Combine that with a fourth line that’s high on energy but low on speed and firepower, and it makes the Flames fairly easy to match up against when the team’s guns aren’t firing.
#4: “3M” Can’t Carry Them
With the team’s big guns silent for the most part, the balance of the offense this season has had to come from what’s been termed the “3M Line” (Backlund, Frolik and Tkachuk, whose first names all begin with M). The trio has been superb this season, but with the Flames’ big guns not doing a ton, it’s been easier for opposing teams to match up their best shutdown line against Backlund’s trio and then try their luck against the remainder of the Flames’ top nine.
Based on the Flames’ record this month, that approach has largely worked for their opponents.
#5: Rough Starts
There’s no way around it: life’s a challenge in the NHL when your team frequently gets scored on first – or spots the opposition a pair of goals or more, as the Flames have done frequently this January. In fact, the Flames gave up the first goal in nine consecutive games.
The Flames are a good team at closing a game out when they have a lead, boasting the league’s second-best winning percentage when up after two periods. But they’re also a team that has a rough time clawing their way back when they get down, showing the league’s sixth-worst winning percentage when trailing after two periods.
The Flames excel when they get early momentum. When they get down a couple goals, especially early, it’s tough for them to stay composed and claw their way back – their tendency has been to open up their game too much, which usually makes the bleeding worse rather than slowing it.