Heading into their two-game set Thursday night with the Montreal Canadiens with new head coach Darryl Sutter behind the bench, the Calgary Flames have their backs against the wall and desperately need to win both tilts. Their season hangs in the balance.
The hope in the Stampede City is that Sutter will be the spur in the Flames’ backside that will ignite a run up the North Division standings. That charge needs to start Thursday night and all eyes will be on Flames players to see how they respond to the old-school approach the new bench boss brings to town. How the Flames fare against the Habs will be an early indication of whether Sutter can really turn his faltering team around.
Flames Face Tall Task
If Sutter can indeed put the struggling Flames back on the rails he will need to do it fast. With 26 points and a record of 3-5-2 in their last 10 games, the Flames have fallen to sixth-place in the North Division having to look past the Vancouver Canucks to see the Habs – for now, the owners of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. What worries Flames fans is that the Habs have two games in hand.
The boys in red can pull themselves even with the Canadiens who have gone 3-2-5 in their last 10 if they can string together back-to-back wins Thursday and Saturday night, but that assumes Montreal drops their tilt with the Canucks Wednesday night. If they beat the Canucks – either in regulation time or in overtime, the Habs will still occupy fourth regardless of whether they drop two to the Cowtown boys.
Odds-makers say that to make the playoffs this year a team will need at least 65 points. That means the Flames need to take 40 of a possible 60 points in their remaining 30 games. That’s .666 hockey and only seven teams in the league currently play at or better than that. Meeting that mark is a very tall order indeed for the Flames, owners as they are of an underwhelming .481 record. Thursday night needs to see the start of .666 hockey in Calgary.
The Habs Will Be a Tough Opponent
The Canadiens will be as frantic as the Flames are desperate to take the two-games. Under pressure to arrest a free fall in the standings from both their fans and a new coach Dominique Ducharme, the Habs will give the Flames no quarter. They need to give themselves some breathing room and put distance between themselves and both the Canucks and Flames in the standings.
The struggling Habs are no scoring powerhouse having notched only 29 goals in their last 10 games while allowing 30 to find the back of their net to earn a .550 record – just below the league average. Their penalty kill is an anemic 77.5%.
Yet it looks like the Habs’ top line of Brendan Gallagher, Philippe Danault and Tomas Tatar has rallied back to become again one of the best in the league with 14 points in their last five games. The Flames will need to find a way to shut them down.
With six games under their belt with new head coach Dominique Ducharme at the helm, the Habs are trying out new systems aimed at boosting their offensive potency. That could turn out to be a boon for the Flames if the Habs are still not fully comfortable with the new methods Ducharme is trying to put into operation. However, it’s important to remember that the Flames will be adjusting their own style of play under Sutter.
Here’s a look at what the Flames must do to bag four points in the set.
1. Flames Need a Good Start
To prevail in the set Calgary will need to get off to a quick start. Last Sunday night against the Ottawa Senators they went down two goals in the first period and chased the game to a 4-3 overtime loss. Said a frustrated Flames captain Mark Giordano after the game “the desperation really has to start from the drop of the puck.”
2. Flames Need to Play 60 Minutes
The Flames will need to play a full game against Montreal and they know it. In the postgame interviews after Sunday’s match, Sam Bennett said “we gotta play 60. We’re only good for a period here and there now.”
As has become their way, they checked out for most of the first and second frames on Sunday. They dialed back into the match to take a desperately needed point with a dominating performance in the third period outshooting the Sens 16 -2.
3. Markstrom Needs to Recover His Form
The set will likely be a goaltenders’ duel with Flames’ twine minder Jacob Markstrom squaring off against resurrected Habs goaltending God, Carey Price who over his last three games has registered a .966 save percentage (SV%) allowing just one goal per game.
Markstrom has looked positively ordinary in the two games he has played since coming back from injury allowing three goals in each and registering save-percentages of .909 and .864. He has not looked like the supremely confident netminder he was prior to his injury although he stonewalled the Senators with outstanding saves on four breakaways that his teammates left him to handle.
4. Get Offense Firing
The Flames faltering offense needs to come alive with Price backstopping the Habs. That may be tough for Calgary’s listless snipers who in their last 10 games have racked up just 26 goals putting them just a notch above membership in the bottom third of the league in scoring. Their goal differential in the last 10 games is an abysmal -9.
The Flames need to recover what had been a potent power play earlier in the season. At a run-of-the-mill 21.05%, it’s below the league average. On eight Sens’ penalties Sunday night only Johnny Gaudreau lit the goal light. On several power plays the Flames couldn’t set up in the offensive zone and shots on net were few.
The Flames are often playing a dump and chase game that doesn’t suit highly talented offensive players like Gaudreau. Not only that, but they don’t have the required forecheck to play “grunt and get it” hockey. Big Milan Lucic charges into the offensive zone and bangs people around forcing turnovers – but that’s it.
For much of the season, the Flames’ play has been a story of turnovers in the neutral zone and unforced errors. The Flames just can’t seem to gain the offensive zone and when they are there they are often shooting from the periphery and not creating chaos in front of the net. That must change starting this week against Montreal.
Calgary will need to clean up the odd-man rushes they are allowing, otherwise the Canadiens’ will make them pay a price. They’ve allowed too many of those rushes in the last few games and Sunday could have seen an Ottawa blowout had Markstrom not stood tall against them.
It is difficult to say what we will see from the Habs and Flames in this two-game set. To quote Forrest Gump’s Mama, “you never know what you’re gonna get” with the Flames. The Habs haven’t been an exemplar of consistency either.
It’s tough to predict an outcome based on previous meetings since the two clubs only met in late January when they split a two-game set with each team scoring four goals.
The Flames will not have seen game action in three days going into the set while the Habs will have played five games in 10 days. Fatigue on the Habs bench may be a factor in the set.
What’s more, the Flames will have had two days of practice to implement some of the new systems and playing style Sutter is widely expected to put into action. That could give them an edge over the Habs in a season where practice time is scant.
My big bold prediction is that the Flames will take the set and put four in their points column.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames along with the OHL’s Ottawa 67s. A freelance writer and blogger, he is also a passionate old timers’ hockey player. Of his work with The Hockey Writers, 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