Flames Weekly: Jets Series, Bennett Drama & Battle of Alberta Reignited

Flames Weekly is our new 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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After having one of the lightest schedules in the NHL for the first two and a half weeks of the season, the boys in red finally got down to business, suiting up four times in seven days. The team played their first three-game set of the season against the Winnipeg Jets, then traveled back home to the dome for round one of the 2020-21 Battle of Alberta. After the dust settled on this past week, the Flames’ record sits at a very mediocre 5-5-1, and they remain in the cellar of the very competitive Scotia North Division.

A Major Power Outage in Winnipeg

What a difference a week can make. After the Flames’ first seven starts of the season, the power play was absolutely humming along at 29.4%, which was good enough for second place in the division and eighth overall in the NHL. Entering the three-game set against the Jets, the Flames had scored a PP goal in every game this season, but that special teams’ success quickly evaporated once they dropped the puck in Winnipeg.

Blake Wheeler Mikael Backlund
Mikael Backlund of the Calgary Flames and Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets face off. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

The Flames’ ineptitude with the man advantage kept getting worse with every game in the Manitoba capital. The visiting squad went 0/2 in game one, 0/3 in game two and 0/4 in game three, but that serious power outage wasn’t even the biggest reason why they dropped two of three games against the Jets. Incredibly slow and frustrating first period starts continued to handcuff this team this past week, forcing them to play catch-up for the final 40 minutes — with mixed results.

Comeback Win Salvaged 2 Points in 3-Game Set

Game one at the MTS Bell Centre did not start well for the visiting squad. After falling down 2-0 courtesy of back-to-back power play goals from the Jets’ Kyle Connor, the Flames finally found some puck luck mere moments after the second period faceoff. Chris Tanev’s first-ever goal with a Flaming C on his chest was a simple dump-in from no man’s land that somehow beat a befuddled Connor Hellebuyck just seven seconds into the frame.

Tanev’s seeing-eye shot was just the spark the team needed to erase an early two-goal deficit and get the game to a shootout, where both Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan found the back of the net and secured a 4-3 victory to kick off the three-game set on the right foot. The following night of the back-to-back saw David Rittich get the nod in net for only the second time this season, but the Flames couldn’t escape another sluggish start.

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This time, defensive breakdowns led to a short-handed marker and a rare goal from Jets’ defenceman Derek Forbort only 30 seconds apart. The sequence completely stunned the visitors and left yet another 2-0 deficit to overcome. Despite a nice bounce-back goal from Matthew Tkachuk just a half-minute later, the Flames couldn’t find another gear until late in the third period and lost the second game 3-2. Rittich did settle in nicely after letting in three first period goals, but big questions remain about how the team’s no. 2 goaltender should be utilized if they struggle to win games without Jacob Markstrom between the pipes.

Sam Bennett Trade Watch Heats up After Healthy Scratch

When Sam Bennett’s agent first dropped the bomb last week that the Flames’ fourth overall pick from the 2014 Draft wanted a “change of scenery,” we all wondered what that could mean for the team’s locker room, the nightly lineup and Bennett’s utilization going forward. In game one of the three-game set with the Jets, I actually found the feisty forward to have a lot of pep in his step, which I think really showed his professionalism in the wake of the Pierre-Luc Dubois saga with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a so-so performance in game two, head coach Geoff Ward decided to make the sixth-year forward a healthy scratch before game three, which completely set the Twitterverse ablaze with speculation.

Many pundits wondered if this unexpected roster move meant a trade was imminent, but Ward insisted it was business as usual during his gameday presser, telling reporters Bennett was “just a healthy scratch tonight, and we’ll take it a day at a time.” After nine games played, no. 93 has tallied zero goals and one assist while averaging 13:20 of ice time per game. According to Natural Stat Trick, his advanced stats in 2020-21 are no better — his expected goals share (44.2%) and shot attempt share (46.7%) at 5v5 are both career worsts.

I’m not sure trading low on the disgruntled center/winger is really the right call, but stranger things have happened. Oh, and keeping Bennett out of the lineup did very little to improve their fortunes, as the Flames dropped their fifth contest in their last seven, losing the final game of the set 4-1.

Bennett Back for a Barnburner Battle of Alberta

When the Flames announced that fourth-line center Derek Ryan suffered a fractured finger in Thursday’s setback in Winnipeg, the team immediately called up Byron Froese from the AHL Stockton Heat. That move surprised me, as I thought the obvious solution was to simply reinsert the recently scratched Bennett into the lineup for Saturday’s much-anticipated tilt against the Edmonton Oilers. Well, both players actually made the cut, along with taxi squad member Zac Rinaldo, and wouldn’t you know it — the latest shakeup to the lineup actually worked.

Sam Bennett Calgary Flames
Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Wearing their reverse retros for the first time, the Flames scored one minute into the game, then promptly stopped skating for the rest of the frame and found themselves outplayed, outshot 17-3 and outscored 2-1 after one period. That’s when the newly minted third line of Mikael Backlund, Andrew Mangiapane and Milan Lucic flipped the script, took over the second period and restored the home team’s lead heading into the third. With his third goal of the 2020-21 campaign, Lucic has now put more pucks in the net this season than Monahan has and is starting to look like he may have some gas left in the tank.

Leading 3-2 heading into the third frame, the boys with “Blasty” emblazoned on their jerseys were in for a wild finish. The Oilers and Flames combined for five third period goals in a true back-and-forth barnburner, reminiscent of the famously entertaining Battle of Alberta contests from the 1980s. While this year’s first installment of the classic provincial rivalry didn’t have any heavyweight bouts, it did feature another multi-point game from Connor McDavid, a breakout three-point effort from Backlund, a nifty power play marker from Dylan Dube, and another highlight-reel game-winner from Gaudreau.

Oh, and there’s just one more thing. Bennett skated with Gaudreau and Monahan and iced the victory with a great scoring play midway through the final period. As the final horn blew on Saturday night, I’m sure many Flames’ faithful felt they really got their money’s worth.

The Week’s Winners and Losers

After playing the fewest games in the entire Scotia North Division to start the season, the Flames hit the ice four times this past week, so there’s a lot to unpack and analyze.

  • A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I was completely unimpressed with the Flames’ trio of new forwards: Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon, and Joakim Nordstrom. Fast-forward to today, and my opinion hasn’t changed much. The coaching staff has repeatedly slotted Simon on the wing with Gaudreau and Monahan. Then, they scratched him. Then, they tried it again. Newsflash: it’s not working. While Leivo has been borderline acceptable, Nordstrom’s strength is supposed to be his skill on the penalty kill, but the team’s PK is actually pretty bad; it’s ranked 16th in the NHL and dropping every week.
  • Somehow, Lucic is both a winner and a loser this week. For starters, he made another bad giveaway that led directly to the Jets’ shorthanded goal in game two. This kind of stuff happens far too often for my liking, but Ward seems to have unwavering faith in the big galoot: keeping him on the second PP unit and giving him repeated chances to redeem himself. And that’s exactly what no. 17 did against the Oilers after being promoted to the third line and having his best game of the season. Go figure.
Milan Lucic Calgary Flames
Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
  • A couple of notable streaks ended this past week. First up, the extremely solid defensive pairing of Tanev and Noah Hanifin finally surrendered their first even-strength goal of the season in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Jets after eight games and nearly two hours of ice time together. Also of note, Gaudreau’s streak of consecutive games with a point to start a season came to an end at nine games, which was fitting because there was nothing to celebrate in Thursday’s 4-1 loss.
  • Mangiapane finally got off the schneid while in Winnipeg, scoring his first two goals of the season. The speedy winger has spent time on all three top lines this season, so I’ll be interested where he takes a majority of his shifts moving forward. Speaking of juggling lines, if the Flames don’t start climbing the standings of the Scotia North Division pretty soon, could we see Ward move Elias Lindholm back to the wing to skate with Gaudreau and Monahan? If that happens, look for Tkachuk to slot back with Backlund and Mangiapane to resurrect the 3M line, which was the team’s best unit in the second half of the 2019-20 season.
  • Rookie defenceman Juuso Välimäki remains a work in progress, but he sure is fun to watch. The 22-year-old Finn makes an equal amount of defensive gaffes and smart offensive plays, but he hasn’t seen any reduction in his ice time. I give kudos to the Flames’ coaching staff for allowing Välimäki to learn from his mistakes and keep improving his overall game in the process.

The Week Ahead

The Flames face a familiar opponent when they return to action on Tuesday, Feb. 9. That’s when they’ll host the Jets and hope for some redemption after losing two of three in Winnipeg. After that, the team travels to the west coast to take on the struggling Vancouver Canucks for a couple of contests on the 11th and 13th. While the Flames finished the week on a high note, they can’t be happy about languishing in the basement of their division. However, they can take some solace in the fact they have games at hand on every team they are chasing, and they have yet to play the NHL’s resident punching bag, the Ottawa Senators.

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