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 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.
What the Flames Faced at the Start of the Week
The Flames headed into the week knowing their Tuesday rubber match with the Toronto Maples Leafs (5-2-0) and two contests with the Montreal Canadiens (4-0-2) would be an early test of their playoff prospects. Both the Buds and Habs tore out of the starting gates this season to establish themselves as the class of the North Division.
Up to this week, the Cowtown boys had it easy, playing two of their first four games against what had been a struggling Vancouver Canucks team who handed over four points to the Flames without too much of a fight. The team knew that points this week would be hard earned.
Flames Lose to Buds 4-3 and Drop the Set
On Tuesday night, for reasons known only to them, the Flames didn’t bother to show up for the first period registering just one shot on goal after almost 16 minutes of play. Down two goals at the end of the period, they chased the game for the rest of the night punishing their fans with a rerun of last year when the team gave up the first goal in 40 games.
The Flames had dropped the first game of their two-game series with the Leafs the previous Sunday by just one goal leading some commentators to think that the Flames just had some bad puck luck. After all, Flames’ netminder Jacob Markstrom had been beaten by two pucks that ricocheted off skates in the crease and one off a player in front of the net. There wasn’t much he could do about any of them so there was nothing to worry about in goal reasoned some pundits.
Yet coming into Tuesday’s game Geoff Ward seemed to know there may have been more to the Flames’ loss on Sunday than just bad luck. After the game, Ward said, “They (the Leafs) go to the net well and we saw that – they got some greasy goals going to the net and that’s what you need. As much as we were happy with our play for a large part of the hockey game, they did some things that made a difference and going to the net hard was one of them.”
In the first period of Tuesday’s match, Wayne Simmonds notched the Leafs’ first goal just after the third minute of play, potting a rebound from his own shot off a stellar pad save by Markstrom. Just past the mid-way point in the period, the Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner show hit the stage with Matthews putting up a power-play marker on a beautiful pass from Marner.
All period long the Leafs pushed the Flames back in the neutral zone forcing their big guns to retreat and regroup repeatedly. Not only that, but Calgary’s rearguard had its hands full with a relentless onslaught of odd-man rushes.
The Flames came out swinging in the second period with Johnny Gaudreau picking up a pass in front of the Leafs’ net from Sean Monahan and finessing the puck past Frederik Andersen just past the one minute mark. Just a minute later though, the Leafs fourth-liner Travis Boyd popped Calgary’s balloon scoring his first goal in a Leafs uniform on a shot that Markstrom probably should have had.
The Flames continued their struggle in the neutral zone during the second period with repeated turnovers at the Leafs’ blue line. There were so many that color commentator and former Flames general manager Brian Burke quipped that he “thought he was in a bakery.”
Calgary closed out the period registering 18 shots on goal to the Leaf’s five, one of which was a goal by Milan Lucic at the 14:21 mark to bring the Flames within a goal of the Leafs. The goal was the first point Lucic and his fourth linemates put up this season.
In the third period, the Flames came out hard to pull even with the Leafs on a power-play goal at 9:03 by Gaudreau, his second of the game on another pass from Monahan. Gaudreau drilled the shot high into the net on Andersen’s blocker side.
Calgary’s hope for a win was all but snuffed out a few minutes later when Mitch Marner found the back of the Calgary net with a one-timer on a pass from Matthews. The last gasp for the Flames came with a few minutes remaining on the clock when they had a 6 on 4 power play. The Leafs shut that down easily denying the Flames any entry into the offensive zone.
The Leafs took four points from the Flames during their three-day stay in the Stampede City leaving Calgary with a mediocre 2-2-1 record and plenty to think about as they packed their bags for Montreal.
Taking on the Habs
Heading into their first meeting with the Division-leading Canadiens on Thursday, the .500 Flames knew they had to break their habit of falling behind early. Gaudreau summed it up best in Tuesday’s post-game press conference saying “That’s not the way we’re going to win games – playing catch-up the whole game”. The Flames needed to show they had the grit to bounce back.
To make that happen Gaudreau, Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm would need to continue their point production and the team’s bottom-six would need to step up. Between them, the Flames’ third and fourth lines had produced just six points in the five games the team had played up to Thursday. They knew going into Montreal that they would be facing a team that could roll at least three solid lines.
The expectation on the Calgary defense corp was to contain Montreal’s explosive offense which as of Thursday led the league with 29 goals in six games. The key to that would be keeping Tyler Toffoli in check and shutting down the Habs’ top line of Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar.
Thursday Night Letdown
The Flames did none of what they needed to do Thursday night losing the contest 4 – 2. Sean Monahan blamed the loss on emotions – or rather lack thereof. The question that begs to be answered here is what would it take to get the Flames emotional enough to show up to play.
The Flames played a high energy game in the first period but Juuso Valimaki’s hard-luck positioned the Habs to notch two power-play goals from Brendan Gallagher and Shea Weber. Valimaki took a hooking penalty that set up Gallagher’s goal at 10:07 and then five minutes later redirected Shea Weber’s point shot with a sloppy stick denying Calgary goaltender David Rittich any chance on a save.
The Flames’ troubles continued with Josh Anderson notching a goal at 8:21 of the second period. Ward said that goal deflated the Flames.
Toffoli lit up the goal light on a short-handed goal just 40 seconds after the puck dropped to start the third period to put the Habs ahead 4 -0. While the Flames answered with power-play goals from Lucic and Rasmus Andersson in the final 90 seconds of the period, the goals didn’t matter either as a point of pride for the Flames or as a message to the Canadiens for Saturday night’s game. It was all too little, too late.
There were a few Flames’ positives in the game. Calgary outshot the Habs 25 – 21, but while that may have produced more goals against other teams, the Flames were facing Carey Price in the Montreal goal. An assist for Gaudreau stretched his point run to eight in six games while the blue line pairing of Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev managed to maintain a perfect zero-goals-against record at even strength. The team’s two power-play goals pushed their total to nine this season while on the man advantage for one of the best records in the league.
Even though his numbers suggested Rittich let his side down, Ward said “It (the loss) wasn’t on him. I don’t think he had a chance on any of the first three goals.” (from “Flames “lacked emotion” in loss to Habs”, Calgary Herald 01/29/2021)
This third loss in a row left the Flames with a 2-3-1 record putting them in the lower tier of the North Division alongside the Edmonton Oilers and the lowly Ottawa Senators. Heading into Saturday nights’ game the Flames were left to wonder what an extended slide could do to their playoff prospects. Nobody wanted to be pondering that question somewhere on a golf course in May
Saturday Night Bounceback
Sometime after Thursday’s loss, the Flames held a players-only, closed-door meeting. Nobody except the players knows what was said, but they walked out of the meeting room with their mojo back to prevail over the Habs 2 – 0 on Saturday night in a gutsy and emotion-laden display of character.
From the outset, the Men in Red mixed it up in scrums after the whistle, laid bone-crushing hits on the Habs – none harder than when Dillon Dube ran over Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and sacrificed themselves blocking a total of 22 shots. The Flames’ Nordic blue liners put on a shot-blocking clinic with Valimaki standing in front of a rocket from Weber that he blocked with his wrist and Andersson burying five shots in various parts of his body.
Gaudreau drew Canadiens’ blood on the game’s first power play, rifling a shot over Habs’ goaltender Jake Allen’s shoulder at the 3:34 minute mark of the first period on a bouncing pass from Lindholm. His fifth on the season, the goal extended Johnny Hockey’s point streak to seven games.
Gaudreau’s goal proved to be the game-winner but still, Flames fans were on the edge of their seats for almost 60-minutes until Mikael Backlund put the game out of reach in the dying seconds of the third period on an open net goal as the Canadiens tried to tie the game with an extra man.
The Habs tossed a lot of rubber at the Flames’ net but just couldn’t solve Markstrom who stopped 37 shots leaving color commentators in disbelief at his mastery between the pipes. Summing up the impact of Markstrom’s performance in a postgame interview, captain Mark Giordano said, “When your goalie plays like that you’re not going to lose. Ever.”
Giving full credit to his teammates, Markstrom explained after the game, “We really stuck together as a team for 60 minutes. When shots were coming, I was seeing the puck and when I wasn’t our guys were blocking shots and clearing rebounds, so it made my job a whole heck of a lot easier. That was a big win for us to come back here after some games where we haven’t been happy or satisfied with the results.”
The Flames needed to show up Saturday night and that’s exactly what they did handing the Habs their first defeat in regulation time this season. They demonstrated to themselves and their legion of critics that they can challenge for the top spot in the North Division.
The Week Ahead
The .500 Flames head to Winnipeg for a Monday night contest against the Jets (5-3-0 and .625) – the first of three they will play this week in The Peg. Then they head back to the Stampede City to face the Oilers on Saturday night in a resumption of the Battle of Alberta.
All eyes will be on the Jets who will be playing without the recently traded Patrik Laine, nor their newly acquired star center Pierre-Luc Dubois who at the time of writing is still in Canadian Covid-19 quarantine. The Jets will be heading into Monday night’s contest coming off a 4-1 spanking at the hands of the Canucks. The Flames should expect the Jets to want to make a statement about the loss.
It remains to be seen how much of a distraction Sam Bennett’s request for trade will prove. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman broke the news during the second intermission in Saturday night’s game saying that, “There was a rumor going around (Saturday) morning that Bennett might want a change of scenery, and I did call his agent, Darren Ferris, who said, “Yes, that’s true, he would like to be considered.” The Flames have not commented on the situation according to Friedman. “One thing I’ve gleaned in just calling around is that they’re not in any hurry to do it” he added.
When asked about the trade request Ward said Bennett was, “a member of our team. So as far as anything else goes, that’s between his agent and (Flames general manager Brad Treliving). But he’s a member of our team. He’s a valued member of our team. He had a good hockey game tonight. So we’ll just continue on, business as usual, and build off what he was putting out on the ice tonight.”
The Flames started the week looking for their identity and while it took them two games to find it, the team is walking into Winnipeg today with a swagger. There was never any question that the Flames had the talent to compete for the top spot in the North Division, they just needed to show that it was backed up by the will and determination of a Cup contender. They did that in Montreal last week.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney