Heading into the week, the Calgary Flames’ hopes for a playoff spot were on life-support, a pulse barely registering. Yet Flames fans consoled themselves with the thought that if the sun and the moon were to align just so, their beloved Cowtown boys could find themselves by the end of the week in a tie with the Montreal Canadiens for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division.
For that to happen, the Flames would need to figure out a way on Monday night to solve what has been for them a wearisome Ottawa Senators team (Flames were 2-4-1against the Sens heading into Monday’s tilt) and then take their two back-to-back games with the Habs later in the week. Not only that, but Montreal would have to help out by dropping their two games with the Edmonton Oilers this week.
Come to think of it, celestial alignments would probably be easier to arrange than all of that.
Monday Night – Ottawa Senators
Connor Brown notched two goals to lead the Senators to a 4-2 victory over the Flames at the Saddledome Monday night. The loss was yet another step the Flames took toward an early start to their golf season.
Once again, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter found himself in front of a postgame press conference explaining what went wrong. Chalking up the loss to turnovers and his team’s failure to play at the needed pace, Sutter expanded saying, “Power play was too slow. Passed the puck too slow. Same guys who turned the puck over all night were the same guys who turned it over on the power play for the most part. You can’t pass the puck into the net. You’ve gotta shoot it. We had guys who didn’t have a shot on goal and probably had five or six turnovers … Generally, that’s the difference in the hockey game, and it certainly was (Monday).”
The Sens opened the scoring at 9:50 of the first leg when Brady Tkachuk put a wrister into the back of Jacob Markstrom’s net on a beautiful pass from rookie Flames defenseman Juuso Valimaki who put a clearing attempt through the middle right onto the Ottawa star’s stick. Valimaki’s turnover to set up that goal was in fact the second of two he engineered on the same shift, the first at the Sens’ blue line on which the visitors from the nation’s capital gained the Calgary zone.
Flames point leader Elias Lindholm answered back just over 90-seconds later sliding his own rebound past Senators’ twine minder Matt Murray. Johnny Gaudreau set up the play drawing all the Sens’ attention as he crossed into Ottawa territory and then sliding a pass to Lindholm who had quietly slinked past the Sens’ defense leaving himself all alone to pot the goal.
The Senators dominated the faceoff circle and kept the Flames penned up in their own zone for the rest of the first period. The Flames on the other hand produced turnovers in numbers that rivaled any Calgary bakery. They were lucky to head into the first intermission tied.
The boys in red continued to struggle in the second frame, turning over pucks constantly, failing to capitalize on Ottawa penalties and giving up the offensive zone quickly on the few occasions they managed to gain it.
The turnovers eventually cost the Flames when with 56 seconds left to go in the second stanza Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin gave up the puck at the Ottawa blue line to Nick Paul, who then charged down the ice with Brown in tow. A wide-open Brown took Paul’s pass and notched a short-handed goal off a backhander that Markstrom would probably want to do over.
Down 2-1 to start the third period and with goals hard to come by when they trail, the Flames faced a huge hill to climb getting back into the game. The Sens handed them the chance to pull even just a few minutes into the frame taking two back-to-back penalties.
The ensuing Calgary power play was a comedy of errors. Their continued turnovers and even an unforgivable power-play icing call chewed up precious time on the clock. They managed to register a few shots that Murray turned away easily during the first penalty, but none during the second.
With their confidence soaring after killing off two consecutive penalties, the Sens went ahead 3-1 when Calder trophy contender Josh Norris added a power-play goal to the score sheet at 7:52 of the third leg on a laser beam wrist shot that beat Markstrom cleanly high on the glove side.
Still, the Flames weren’t dead yet with Lucic less than a minute later sticking his shin pad in front of a rocket blast from the point by Michael Stone to notch his eighth goal of the season. Press as they did to tie the game, the Flames simply couldn’t gain the Ottawa zone. The Senators continued to plug the lanes denying the boys in red any speed through the neutral zone.
Brown sealed the Flames’ fate with just over a minute to go in the game with an empty-net goal as the Flames resorted to six attackers in a desperate bid to force the game into overtime.
The Flames were defeated by a team that played an outstanding road game. Calgary’s turnovers, as numerous as they were glaring, set up two of Ottawa’s four goals. Not only that, they were held off the scoreboard on all five penalties the Sens took and even gave up a shorthanded goal on one of them.
Lindholm was the only bright spot for the Flames. Others that should have stepped up, didn’t.
What was striking about the postgame press coverage were the facile explanations for the loss offered by Flames players. Sean Monahan said, “We weren’t good enough (tonight) and we had chances and you got to bear down around the net and you got to score goals at this time of the year and yeah, we needed a better effort.” Calgary fans could be forgiven for screaming at their television sets asking why their team didn’t put in a “better effort” given the desperate situation they face.
Not to be outdone on the banal, Lucic weighed in on his team’s playoff hopes explaining, “there’s a little bit of hope. But we got to stop hoping and start winning some games.” He took the Fifth on when he thought the Flames might get around to doing that.
With the win, the North Division’s bottom dwelling Senators have taken six games this season from the Cowtown club. The Sens are Flames killers and if the boys in red find themselves on the putting green in May, it will be partly on account of the 12 points they gave up to a last place team.
With the loss, the Flames headed into a three-day break during which they would prepare for a crucial three-game set with the Habs beginning Friday night at home in the Dome. They would have to take all three games in regulation time to have any hope of seeing postseason action.
Friday – Montreal Canadiens
Monahan put up a goal and two assists in Friday night’s do-or-die tilt with the Habs in Calgary to lead his team to a convincing 4-2 win. The three-point night for the big centreman was his biggest of a season which has seen a striking drop in his points production.
Andrew Mangiapane summed up the win explaining, “I think we were playing fast. I thought we were getting on them, on their D, just throwing the puck to the net and just kind of grinding them. Just playing fast, I think that’s when our team’s at the best.
The boys in red played desperate hockey Friday night befitting a club hanging on to the faintest of playoff hopes. Their task was made easier by a badly slumping Habs team that was missing its star goaltender Carey Price and their heart and soul player, Brendan Gallagher.
Dillon Dube opened the scoring for the Flames at 6:05 of the first stanza putting a snapshot into the back of Jake Allen’s net on a backhand pass from Mangiapane lurking down low in the corner. Stalwart centreman Derek Ryan picked up the secondary assist on the play. The Flames could thank Tyler Toffoli for setting up the opportunity by turning over the puck at his own blue line.
Toffoli made amends just before the halfway point of the period capitalizing on Hanifin’s careless pass through the neutral zone to no one in particular that the prolific sniper picked off waltzing unchallenged into the Flames’ end to rip a wrister that beat Markstrom on his blocker side. The towering Swedish twine minder would probably want to hit the Undo button on that shot.
It looked like the Flames were heading into the first intermission tied and feeling good about a period in which they had lots of scoring chances and dominated the play. Joel Armia had other ideas and put a rocket past Markstrom at the 18:24 mark on a short-side screen shot off a face-off win by Phillip Danault making it 2-1.
Mangiapane answered back exactly a minute later tipping in a blast from the point by Hanifin to beat Allen high on the glove side bringing the teams even. Mangiapane’s redirect was pure artistry in reading the low point shot from Hanifin and opening the blade of his stick perfectly at just the right moment to deny Allen any chance on the play.
The Flames had reason to feel confident heading into the first break knowing they had outshot their visitors by almost a 2 to 1 margin playing a strong fast game with lots of looks at the Habs’ net. The only nagging doubt may have been Markstrom who gave up two goals on just seven shots in the period.
Calgary continued to dominate in the second frame especially at the faceoff circle where they were doubling the Habs on wins at the mid-point of the period. The Habs kept the Flames off the scoreboard on the period but needed help from the referees who disallowed a goal by Mikael Backlund late in the period for goaltender contact in the crease.
Coming out to start the third tied at two, the Flames knew that they would need to dominate the Habs for another 20-minutes to keep their postseason ambitions alive. The Mony and Johnny show arrived in town just shy of the six-minute mark with Gaudreau from the corner feeding Monahan all alone in the slot with a pass that the big centreman drove home to notch the winner.
Monahan was asked about the chemistry with Gaudreau in the postgame presser and said, “Yeah, I mean he’s probably given me 150 of those (passes). So, I’m pretty used to that. We’ve played together for years, so when we’re out there together you expect to get looks and you got to expect to put the puck in the net.”
Some Calgary fans hoped the goal meant Sutter would reunite the dangerous duo, but when asked about that in the postgame presser Sutter said that the fact they were on the ice together was just because of the lineup rotation at that point in the game.
Lindholm put the game beyond the reach of the Habs with just eight seconds remaining in the game on an empty netter as the Habs threw six attackers at the Flames in a frantic attempt to salvage a tie and push the game into overtime.
Saturday – Montreal Canadiens
The Flames improved their season record against the Habs to 6-2-0 as Gaudreau notched two goals to hand the visitors from La Belle Province a 5-2 loss Saturday night in the Saddledome. The win brings the boys in red to within four points of the tanking Canadiens for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division.
Flames captain Mark Giordano summed up the win saying, “We’ve been playing good hockey for a while now. I think the difference is we’re getting leads and we’re holding leads now. That’s been the difference. We’re burying some of our chances. Hopefully, we can continue to be rewarded.”
A win Monday afternoon would bring the Flames to within two points of the Habs. Although “Les Glorieux” would have a game in hand, they are still 3-8-0 in their last 11 games and face a grueling schedule with games later in the week against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets, and the Senators, all of which will be tough.
While there are no easy wins in the North Division, the Flames face what is likely to be an exhausted Vancouver Canucks team in four of their final nine games. Thinking that should help their climb into the fourth spot, Flames fans were daring to wonder whether their team had a shot at playoff action.
Saturday night marked the second game in a row that the Flames’ stars were their best players. Gaudreau came through with a momentum-changing goal with just 30-seconds to go in the first period to tie the game at one on a lightning bolt of a wrist shot from the top of the circle that beat rookie Habs goaltender Cayden Primeau high on the glove side. Tkachuk set the play up with a stretch pass right onto the tape of Gaudreau’s stick on which the tiny perfect left winger broke in on the Montreal goal unmolested for the marker.
The Flames needed Gaudreau’s goal badly after Nick Suzuki had potted the Habs’ first of the night at the 11:32 mark. The Habs gained the Calgary zone quickly blasting through the neutral zone past the Flames imitating traffic pylons after which Chris Tanev lost track of Suzuki who banged a rebound into the back of Markstrom’s net, but only after he had made three saves.
The Flames were lucky to come out of the first period tied at one. The Habs were coming through the neutral zone at speed giving the Calgary blueliners all they could handle especially after Hanifin left the ice early in the first frame due to an undisclosed injury reducing the defense corps to five.
Not only that, but the Habs dominated in the faceoff circle and were capitalizing on Flames’ turnovers and far too many rebounds that Markstrom surrendered. They soaked up lots of time in the Calgary zone and denied the Flames easy entry into theirs.
Barely more than two minutes into the second period, Lucic dented Habs’ twine on a snipe made possible by Ryan’s faceoff win. If truth be told, Ryan’s Irish luck played a part with the puck bouncing off the ref’s skate right onto Lucic’s stick to set the bruising winger up for the shot.
Some five minutes later, Johnny Hockey put up his second goal of the game snapping a shot past Primeau on a pass from Mangiapane. Gaudreau stole into scoring position off the Calgary bench unseen by Habs defenders. The goal was his second in five games giving him 17 on the season – the most of any player on the roster and boosted his point production in the last five tilts to one a game.
The Flames were the better team in the second stanza dominating on the forecheck and faceoffs. Gaudreau and Monahan reunited on several shifts to keep the Canadiens off balance while Backlund created havoc in the Habs’ backyard.
If there was a downside to the Flames’ play in the second, it was their three consecutive visits to the penalty box. The wages of sin caught up to them with just under two minutes to go in the second when Toffoli got his name on the score sheet with a power-play goal pulling his team within one.
The Cowtown boys came out like broncos to start the third and went ahead 4-2 on Brett Ritchie’s goal at 4:41 on a pass from Ryan that all started on a sloppy Habs turnover. It was the second goal Ryan set up on the night presumably making Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving glad he hadn’t put the journeyman center on the trading block at the deadline last week.
The Flames turned on the afterburners in the third, outshooting their guests by a margin of two-to-one and leaving no doubt as to the outcome of the game for the hapless Habs.
Rasmus Andersson put the proverbial nail into Montreal’s coffin on an ice-length lob shot he landed in an empty Montreal net with just over two minutes left to go in the game. It was his first in 16 games.
The game was largely a story of Johnny Hockey returning to his old form with a depleted Calgary defense corps doing yeoman’s service backstopped by an outstanding performance between the Calgary pipes by Markstrom.
The back to back wins against Montreal were enormous victories for the boys from Stampede City. If Montreal is to find a way into the postseason they will have to put an end to the Flames’ momentum and that needs to start Monday afternoon.
Now, a slumping Montreal will be feeling all the pressure realizing they have blown a big lead over the Flames for the final playoff spot in the North. The Flames on the other hand are playing like they have nothing to lose having been counted out for weeks now by every hockey pundit in Cowtown.
Studs and Duds of the Week
Dud – Valimaki for his turnovers Monday night against the Senators. Were he a baker’s apprentice, he’d be a superstar.
Stud – Lindholm for continuing his point-a-game production with a goal Monday night. He was the only bright spot for the Flames in the loss to the Sens.
Dud– Hanifin for turnovers Monday night, one of which cost the Flames a goal.
Stud – Dube Friday night who was buzzing everywhere and had a goal to show for it. He was a constant threat that the Habs had to handle all night long.
Stud – Monahan for leading the Flames to a win Friday night with a goal and two assists.
Stud – Ryan for setting up two of the Flames goals Saturday night. He’s underrated and quietly gets the job done doing all the little things right.
Stud – Gaudreau for his two goals Saturday night.
The Week Ahead
The Flames will lace up Monday afternoon to take on the Canadiens in the third game of a set that will likely determine whether they see postseason action. A win in regulation time would probably have Calgary bookies offering much improved odds of playoff action for the boys in red. A loss would bury their chances barring a complete collapse of the Habs in the season’s home stretch.
The Flames will take up the battle of Alberta again with games against the Godless Edmonton Oilers Thursday and Saturday in the capital of the Princess province. With a win in this set and a few losses by the Habs, the Flames could stamp their ticket to the postseason this week.
This week, the Flames went from being an also-ran to a legitimate playoff contender after I and my colleagues with The Hockey Writers’ Flames Faceoff show had declared them dead. Fasten your seatbelts for what will be a wild ride this 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