Flames Weekly: Battle of Alberta Setback, Senators Series & Sutter Hire

Flames Weekly is our series on how the Calgary Flames performed the previous week. Be sure to check in every Monday for our take on the week that was and to find out which storylines and players took center stage. Feel free to use the comment section below to let us know how you thought the team performed this past week or to post any other ideas or questions you have about the Flames.

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Except for the sliding Montreal Canadiens, every other Scotia North Division club has been licking their chops and feasting on the cellar-dwelling Ottawa Senators. The Edmonton Oilers have secured wins in four games against Ottawa this season, and the Vancouver Canucks topped the Sens in all three of their matchups. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets have captured four of five meetings, and the division-leading Maple Leafs are 3-1-1 versus their Ontario rivals. This made the Flames’ recent series against the Senators critical to rack up victories, keep pace with the division, and keep their hope for the playoffs afloat.

Rough Start: Flames Suffer Another Lopsided Loss

Heading into last Monday’s tilt in the nation’s capital, the Flames were fresh off a convincing 6-3 win over the Senators after the team reset their top-nine forwards in favour of some tried, tested and true line combinations. Elias Lindholm was back on the wing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Matthew Tkachuk returned to the 3M line with Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane, and the very productive 2020 playoff trio of Sam Bennett, Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube was reunited. The formula worked like gangbusters in the previous game, so they tried it again with disastrous results.

Milan Lucic Calgary Flames
Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Senators opened the scoring early in the second frame after Lucic made a dangerous pass to Bennett that was bobbled in the neutral zone and ended up in the Flames’ goal a few seconds later. To his credit, Lucic made up for the blunder when he drove hard to the net during a mid-period power play, fought to get his own rebound, then buried his sixth goal of the season to momentarily bring the visitors to within one. That’s as close as the Flames got.

Just two minutes later, a terrible giveaway by goaltender David Rittich ended up in the back of the Flames’ net, completely derailing the squad’s tenuous comeback. Ottawa then sat on their 3-1 lead and made it extremely tough for the visiting team to generate any offence the rest of the way. After an empty-netter and a late deflection, the score was another humiliating 5-1 loss.

Thursday Night’s Game Could Be the Turning Point of the Season

The Flames had a couple of days off to regroup and ponder how they squandered a golden opportunity to get back into the playoff picture by letting one of the NHL’s worst teams outscore them 14-8 over three games. They were hoping a change of venue on Thursday, to the friendly confines of the Scotiabank Saddledome, might help turn the tides in the four-game set against the Sens and possibly their season. It did. But the explosion of offence in a runaway 7-3 victory wasn’t the biggest bombshell dropped by the Flames that night.

But, before we dive into the Flames’ latest coaching shakeup, the home squad blew the doors off of the last-place Senators that night. Unlike their big 6-3 win over Ottawa on Feb. 27, this time, the boys in red actually found some elusive secondary scoring to secure the victory.

Leading the way was Dillon Dube, who recorded his first career hat trick while playing on a recycled/reshuffled line with Tkachuk and Lindholm. The game also featured a splendid comeback performance from Derek Ryan, who missed 10 games with a fractured finger. The fourth line center made a splash on his very first shift by setting up a gorgeous Brett Ritchie goal to open the scoring.

Dillion Dube Michael DiPietro
Calgary Flames’ Dillion Dube (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)

The 34-year-old also closed out a very strong night by potting his first marker of the 2020-21 campaign. With a four-point night from the Ryan line, and Josh Leivo ending his season-long scoring drought, the Flames finally showed a balanced attack and some signs of life from their previously ineffective fourth unit.

Guess Who’s Back…Back Again?

The home team didn’t have much time to bask in the glow of their win before the jaw-dropping news broke on Twitter: Head coach Geoff Ward was relieved of his duties effective immediately and as former Flames bench boss and GM Darryl Sutter replaced him. Most coaches don’t get fired on the same night as a huge victory.

Ward became the Flames’ head coach in the middle of the 2019-20 season after allegations of racism and abuse surfaced about former bench boss Bill Peters. Ward did right the ship and lead the team into the playoffs, but many thought his fate was sealed by an underperforming 2020-21 campaign that has failed to produce consistent results from a group of players that can best be described as “Jekyll and Hyde.”

Sutter was hired for the remainder of this campaign and two more seasons, and his job is simple: light a fire under an underachieving roster and introduce a level of old-school accountability that many of these players have never experienced before. The gruff rancher from Viking, Alberta, has 18 years of experience behind the bench, has won two Stanley Cups, and is known for telling his players exactly where they stand. GM Brad Treliving is betting on Sutter to salvage the season and recapture the form that made the Flames the top of the Western Conference in 2018-19.

Flames Drop 2 in a Row After Coaching Change

With Sutter on board, expectations were sky-high for an intense installment of the Battle of Alberta. However, COVID-19 protocols have delayed the new/old head coach’s debut, so assistant Ryan Huska ran the bench for the weekend games against the Oilers and Senators.

The second they drooped the puck in the provincial capital, every Flame played like they were auditioning for a new coach who was quietly watching their every move from afar. With Jacob Markstrom back between the pipes, the visiting squad dominated the first period, outshooting Edmonton 22-10 and scoring a beautiful power-play goal to take the lead.

Unfortunately, the Flames peaked in the opening frame and watched as the Oilers slowly turned the tide for the rest of the game. Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period, Calgary couldn’t hang on, as Connor McDavid snapped out of his mini-slump by posting a three-point night, including a gorgeous game-winner with only a few minutes left in regulation to make the final a soul-crushing 3-2 loss.

The following night, the boys in red were back in the Saddledome to take on the Senators for the fifth time in 11 days. This game unfolded in reverse fashion from the night before, as the Flames failed to show up for the first 40 minutes and found themselves down 3-1 heading into the third. The home team finally woke up and overpowered the visitors in the final frame, outshooting Ottawa 16-3. After Gaudreau’s second power-play goal in as many nights, Noah Hannifin buried his second goal of the season to tie the game up 3-3 and send it to overtime.

Unfortunately, the Flames could not solve Matt Murray in extra time or in the shootout and have now dropped their first two games of the (latest) Darryl Sutter era. They’ve lost three of five contests against the lowly Senators, securing five of a possible 10 points. With everyone else in the division boasting a better record against the last place Sens, this futility could come back to haunt them.

The Week’s Winners and Losers

The Flames played four games in three different cities over the past seven days and just installed a new head coach, so there’s a lot to unpack and analyze as we look at who made the biggest impression – positive or negative.

  • I always liked Ward, but the week’s biggest loser has to be the Flames’ former head coach, who became the fall guy for the team’s mediocre record and inconsistent performance. They say you can’t fire the team when a season starts to head south, so Ward became the latest casualty in the franchise’s never-ending coaching carousel. Will it make a difference?
  • Markstrom had missed six straight games due to injury, but the Flames’ number one netminder didn’t miss a beat in his first start since Feb. 22, looking pretty, pretty good against the Oilers on Saturday night. He stopped 30 of 33 shots, and no one could fault him on the game-tying goal that Backlund expertly tipped past him. He followed that up with another solid effort Sunday night against the Sens, but it wasn’t enough to secure a victory in either contest.
  • Ryan missed 10 games with a fractured finger, but since his return, he has provided some much-needed stability to the Flames’ fourth line. With two points in three games, the 34-year-old center has been a jolt of energy to the bottom of the lineup.
  • Rittich played two of the Flames’ four games last week and was hot and cold. The 28-year-old’s inconsistent season has mirrored the team’s – meaning we really don’t know if or when “Big Save Dave” will show up. Sound familiar?
  • Lucic scored his sixth goal of the season last week, which also happens to rank fourth on the team and puts the big galoot on pace to handily beat his eight total tallies from last season. This solid production has not gone unnoticed on social media, as I’ve seen memes pointing out that Lucic has more goals than Nathan McKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall. Not too shabby.
  • Bennett was a healthy scratch for two consecutive games before an injury to Joakim Nordstrom in the Battle of Alberta gave the controversial forward a chance to slot back into the lineup for Sunday’s game. This mid-season coaching change could not have come at a better time for the Flames’ highest-ever draft pick, as he now has a clean slate with a new bench boss who will likely give No. 93 a real shot to redefine his role.

The Week Ahead

The Flames have a pretty light schedule this week. After a three-day break, they will hit the ice again on Thursday to host the Canadiens for the first of a two-game set that wraps up on Saturday night. I’m not saying these are must-win games, but we know these are must-win games.

The Habs are three points ahead of Calgary in the race for that fourth and final playoff spot in the Scotia North Division with two games at hand. After Saturday’s tilt, the Flames will have reached the halfway point of their 2020-21 season and by then, we should have a pretty good idea if this week’s snap coaching change can save it.

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