Expectations were undoubtedly high as the Calgary Flames entered the 2019-20 season, and why wouldn’t they be? The team was coming off its second-most successful regular season in franchise history, its top five scoring leaders we all coming off career-high point totals and captain Mark Giordano was the reigning Norris Trophy winner.
Yes, a tough playoff loss to the Colorado Avalanche sent the top seed in the Western Conference packing after only five games in the 2019 postseason, but many Flames players vowed to use the stinging first-round exit as motivation to take the team to the next level in 2019-20. Let’s take a look back at how it all played out.
Flames Slow Out of the Gate
Inconsistent play at both ends of the ice and a steep drop in production from the team’s top players led to a middling 7-6-2 record by the end of October. The decline in scoring was unsettling, as the Flames’ core forward group had remained intact and expectations were high to start the 2019-20 campaign. The struggles continued well into the following month, as the team stumbled to 11-12-4 before a bombshell revelation about head coach Bill Peters on Nov. 25 shook the franchise to its core.
Former NHL player Akim Aliu alleged that Peters had used racial epithets toward a former player while coaching in the American Hockey League 11 years earlier. Aliu stated Peters used a racial slur several times because he did not like the choice of music being played in the dressing room.
The Flames organization put assistant coach Geoff Ward in charge of the team on a temporary basis while it investigated the allegations. On Nov. 29, Peters resigned as head coach of the Flames and Ward was officially announced as interim coach.
Despite a Bounceback Under Ward, the Flames’ Top Players Continued to Disappoint
With all the eyes of the hockey world watching, the Flames responded to the pressure cooker by winning their first seven games under Ward’s tutelage, which started to turn the season around. There was another impressive five-game winning streak in early January, and a great 5-2-1 run to close out the regular season, but the Flames were getting the job done without major contributions from their big guns.
The Flames’ scoring sagged noticeably in 2019-20, at only 2.91 goals per game – 20th in the NHL. That was way down from a very impressive 3.52 the previous season, which tied for second.
That’s what happens when a team’s top players all come down from career highs. Johnny Gaudreau went from 36 goals and 99 points in 2018-19 to 18 goals and 58 points in 2019-20 and generally speaking, as Gaudreau goes, so does Sean Monahan. The drop in Monahan’s production was even more pronounced – from 34 goals and 82 points during Calgary’s standout 2018-19 season to only 22 goals and 48 points. While Elias Lindholm increased his goal output in 2019-20, his overall numbers went down from 27 goals and 78 points to 29 goals and 54 points.
Turning to defense, Calgary’s blueliners also regressed, allowing 3.06 goals per game in 2019-20, which tied for 15th in the NHL. Compare that to 2.72 goals per game the previous season, and it was obvious there were problems up and down the lineup. Captain Mark Giordano was another player who had nowhere else to go but down.
The Norris Trophy winner missed 10 games due to a hamstring injury and his numbers came crashing back to earth with only 5 goals and 31 points in 60 games. This was a sharp decline from an incredible 17 goals and 74 points in 78 games in 2018-19.
There Were Bright Spots and Breakout Players
For the first time since joining the Flames, Matthew Tkachuk led the team in scoring, potting 23 goals and adding 38 assists for 61 points in 68 games played. The gritty forward with great hands emerged as a focal point of the team in the 2019-20 season, as he almost singlehandedly resurrected the Battle of Alberta with an ongoing feud with Oilers forward Zack Kassian. Tkachuk made the Flames/Oilers tilts must-see TV and became a household name across the NHL in the process.
Second year-forward Andrew Mangiapane also took a strong step forward, having a breakout year after being slotted with Tkachuk and Backlund on the rebooted 3M line. After signing a one-year, two-way contract in September 2019, the 24-year-old forward notched 17 goals and 15 assists for 32 points in 68 games. The previous season saw Mangiaoane split time between the Flames, scoring 13 points in 44 games, and Stockton of the American Hockey League netting 17 points in 15 games.
Another bright spot was the play of Dylan Dube while playing alongside Derek Ryan and a slightly rejuvenated Milan Lucic. (from ‘Coaching change gave Milan Lucic reason not to retire after rough start in Calgary,’ Calgary Sun, 02/19/2020) Defenseman Rasmus Andersson also took a big step forward, proving he could play top-four minutes when called upon. Veteran netminder Cam Talbot was also a pleasant surprise during the 2019-20 season.
Signed to be the number two behind David Rittich, it became apparent that Talbot was the Flames’ best option between the pipes after “Big Save Dave” faltered. Talbot went 12-10-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average (GAA) and .919 save percentage (SV%), while Rittich was 24-17-6 with a 2.97 GAA and .907 save percentage, which included both hot and cold stretches.
COVID-19 Halted Play, but Bubble Playoffs Saved the 2019-20 NHL Season
League officials suspended the NHL season on March 12, 2020, after several other professional and collegiate sports organizations shut down due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On May 26, the regular season was officially declared over with the remaining games being canceled.
To make up for the last part of the regular season being scrapped, the NHL added a play-in round, giving 24 teams a chance at hoisting the Stanley Cup. The Flames finished eighth in the West and would be matched up against the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets. The series started on Aug. 1, 2020, in the Edmonton playoff bubble.
The Jets had many offensive weapons at their disposal and a Vezina-candidate goaltender between the pipes, so there was no clear favorite when the five-game play-in series began. Talbot got the start in goal for the Flames and he continued his strong play, including a shutout in Game 4. Once again, Sam Bennett followed up a mediocre regular season with another stellar post-season, leading the Flames in points.
And not surprisingly, Tkachuk found himself in the middle of another controversy after a hit to Jets star forward Mark Scheifele knocked him out of the playoffs. The Flames handily won the series in four games and advanced to the official first round of the 2019-20 playoffs to face off against the Dallas Stars.
Flames Series with the Dallas Stars Will be Remembered for an Epic Collapse
The Flames entered the series feeling pretty good about themselves and carried that momentum to an impressive 3-2 win in the opener. Game 2 was a sloppy affair that saw Talbot have his first bad outing of the Stanley Cup playoffs – including letting in a late third-period goal that sealed victory for the Stars. However, Talbot would silence all of the naysayers after posting an impressive shutout in Game 3 that gave the series lead back to the Flames.
At this point, Calgary was in the driver’s seat and had it not been for another late-game collapse, they could have taken a commanding 3-1 lead. Up 4-3 late in the third period, Calgary only needed to hold on for the final 12.9 seconds, but they were not up to the task. Dallas would tie the game and eventually win it in OT, completely deflating the Flames and shifting the momentum.
To make matters worse, Tkachuk left the game after being injured in the third period and would be done for the series. A tough 2-1 loss in Game 5 set the stage for a make or break showdown with the 2019-20 season hanging in the balance. What happened next is hard to watch, so viewer discretion is advised.
After storming out of the gate with three goals in the first 6:34 of the game, the Flames looked like they were hungry to force a deciding Game 7. Well… looks can be deceiving. The Stars pushed back with a goal at 9:36 of the first period, they then added another in the first minute of the second, and somehow that caused the Flames to completely unravel.
Dallas simply took over the game, and Calgary simply had no answer. The eventual Western Conference champions scored seven unanswered goals en route to an embarrassing beatdown, finishing the series in six games and unceremoniously ending the Flames 2019-20 season.
Yet another first-round exit has everyone wondering if this core group will ever get the job done in the postseason. Once again, Gaudreau and Monahan are the usual scapegoats, but there are also questions about Giordano’s playoff durability.
In the end, the Flames 2019-20 season will go down in history for many reasons – a coaching scandal, a four-month pandemic stoppage, a summer postseason in a bubble with no fans and an all-too-brief playoff run that culminated with the most embarrassing playoff loss in franchise history. It will definitely be hard to top this past year, but with another NHL season coming up in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, I would say all bets are off.