Heading into the month of January, the Calgary Flames were firmly holding onto a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and looking forward to a month that would see the team play eight of their 13 games against non-playoff teams.
Things were looking rosy, to say the least. Having won six games in the month of December, Brian Elliott was back on track, and was starting to look like the player the Flames had traded for in the summer. Meanwhile, Chad Johnson was still fairly fresh off of his November tear, and the team was getting healthy again.
Following a solid first week that saw the Flames take two of their first three games, the wheels then fell off. Calgary would lose seven of their remaining 10 games to close out January, failing to score first in any of those contests. Now, coming out of the All Star break and looking ahead to February, the Flames are in serious danger of falling behind in the playoff race.
Not Pulling Their Weight
Part of the Flames’ January struggles certainly had to do with the disappearance of a few key cogs in the offensive machine.
One player whose drought has caught the most attention is, of course, Johnny Gaudreau. With only two goals in 13 January games, Gaudreau has become a lightning rod for what ails the Flames. It’s not just about production, though, as he has been guilty of committing multiple costly turnovers at crucial points in games throughout the month.
Gaudreau may have, however, begun to get things back on track in the Flames’ last game before All-Star weekend. In a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, Gaudreau managed to net the overtime winner along with picking up an assist. Having Gaudreau find his form again down the stretch run would go a long way to helping the Flames claw back into the race for the Pacific Division.
Unfortunately, Gaudreau is not the only player coming off of an abysmal month. Since returning from injury on Jan. 13, Troy Brouwer has gone pointless in eight games. He no doubt deserves to be cut some slack coming off of a hand injury, but blanking the scoresheet while playing top minutes is not something this team can afford right now. On top of it all, the 31-year-old Brouwer is in his first year of a massive, controversial deal, so the Flames are going to need a lot more out of the vet than they have seen so far this season.
Lastly, it is crucial for Sam Bennett to begin picking up his offensive play for the Flames down the stretch. Patience is key with young players as talented as Bennett, but unfortunately, patience is a luxury Glen Gulutzan and company don’t have at the moment.
Having sat as a healthy scratch earlier this month, Bennett has put up only one goal in 12 January contests. No assists, just one goal, and a redundant one at that. Bennett scored with one second remaining in the team’s 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens last week, serving no purpose other than to prevent being shut out in back-to-back games.
Mid-Season Equipment Change
On another note, somewhat under the radar but potentially impactful changes are coming to the game this week. As of this coming Saturday, every keeper in the NHL will be required to change to new, smaller goalie pants.
As a continued effort to reduce the ever-growing size of goaltender equipment, and ultimately increase scoring, goalies’ pant sizes now must be no more than six inches greater than their waist size.
Shrinking the pants is only the first step in a larger initiative to reduce the bulk today’s goalies are wearing in order to cover more net, but it’s proving to be a complicated process. More changes to the size of chest protectors, and even gloves may be in place for next season, but that is still to be determined.
The new, slimmer pants are getting mixed reactions, but have received no complaints from either of Calgary’s two netminders. Having practiced with the new pads extensively, Brian Elliott said there was “no change” in terms of his comfort and performance on the ice. No doubt the team is hoping that there is a change — for the better — as the Flames are in desperate need of more consistency in net moving forward.
A Tough February Ahead
After closing out January by losing four of five and having been outscored 22-10 in the process, the All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Flames. Now the team looks ahead to a very difficult February, where they will play eight of their 12 games on the road.
Kicking things off is a home date with the surging Minnesota Wild on Wednesday, who now sit atop the Western Conference having won eight of their past 10. Following that, the team will kick off an Eastern U.S. trip that starts on Friday night against the New Jersey Devils, where the Flames will look to exact some revenge following a home loss to the Devils just a couple of weeks ago.
With two games early next week at the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, three of Calgary’s next four are coming against top-10 teams in the league. The Flames must be able to punch above their weight class here to keep pace, especially with all of the teams chasing Calgary holding two or three games in hand.
Calgary-based writer covering all things Flames. Follow me on Twitter @glenneberth