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
Heading into the week, the Flames had their backs against the wall facing a pivotal two-game set starting Thursday night with the Montreal Canadiens with the outcome of their season hanging in the balance. Added to that was their first practice on Tuesday with tough new bench boss Darryl Sutter.
The hope in the Stampede City was that Sutter would be the spur in the Flames’ backside that would ignite a run up the North Division standings. All eyes would be on Flames players to see how they responded to the old-school approach Sutter brought to town. For hockey pundits, how the Flames fared against the Habs would be an early indication of whether Sutter could really turn this faltering team around.
With 26 points and a record of 3-5-2 in their last 10 games, the Flames had fallen to sixth place in the North Division forced to look past the Vancouver Canucks to see the Habs – the owners of the fourth and final playoff spot. Worsening their plight was that the Habs had two games in hand.
Fans of the boys in red knew that with wins on Thursday and Saturday, the struggling squad could pull themselves to within a point of Montreal. With any other result, the hole the team dug for itself would get deeper.
Cowtown hockey statisticians were pointing out that to make the playoffs a team would need at least 65 points. That meant the Flames would 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 were playing at or better than that.
As the week started, meeting that mark seemed a very tall order indeed for the Flames, owners as they were of an underwhelming .481 record. Thursday night would need to see the start of .666 hockey in Calgary – and everyone in town including the Flames knew it.
The Montreal Set
Josh Leivo scored twice to lead the Flames to a 2–1 victory over the Habs at the Saddledome Thursday night.
Summing up the win Sutter explained, “I thought we played a patient game and pretty much a mistake-free game.” Before any of that could go to anybody’s head, Sutter said there were six or seven turnovers that he didn’t like.
Related: Flames Weekly: Battle of Alberta, Senators Series and Sutter Hire
Calgary’s fourth line of Leivo, Sam Bennett and Derek Ryan led the way for the Flames all night long racking up all the points the team registered. Explaining the win, an exultant Bennett said, “we got a really good start and everyone on the team knew their job and their role.”
The match was a typical low-scoring Sutter-style affair with the Flames concentrating on getting pucks past the Habs’ defense, winning battles at the blue line, keeping their game simple and sticking to their plan.
Flames’ blueliner Noah Hannifin and others repeatedly chalked up the win to “playing fast” – a change Sutter promised to deliver when he took over the reins. Hannifin added “When we play fast, we frustrate other teams. That’s our identity.”
Playing that style of game is all about puck movement and that in turn requires structure. As Ryan explained it, “everybody knows their role so nobody is hesitating and questioning things.”
The first frame saw both teams playing a conservative, tight-checking style. As the period wore on the Flames defense were activating off the blue line early and often, while their forwards mounted a relentless forecheck coming at the Habs in waves and keeping them off balance. The teams went to intermission scoreless, each with six shots on goal.
The Flames bolted out of the gates to start the second period with Leivo finding the back of the net to notch his second goal in three games at the 1:52 mark. The goal was the result of a masterful three-way passing play which saw Bennett work the puck into the Montreal zone, toss it back to a trailing Ryan who then hit Leivo standing at the corner of the Habs’ net for a beautiful tip-in goal.
Leivo wasn’t done with Habs’ twine minder Jake Allen just yet, beating him with a laser shot from the slot at 13:55 of the period to put his guests down two goals to none. Ryan set the goal up by forcing Habs star defenseman Shea Weber to turn the puck over onto Leivo’s stick.
Commenting on his goals, Leivo explained with a modesty seemingly possessed only by hockey players these days, “I don’t think I got those goals without the linemates. They worked hard, created some turnovers and I was just standing there in the right spot. I gotta give credit to my linemates.”
The third frame saw the Habs’ Corey Perry get his team on the score sheet just past the ten-minute mark tipping a wobbler from the point by Shea Webber into the back of Jacob Markstrom’s net.
The Habs pushed hard to get the equalizer, but the Flames held them off. Paul Byron’s slashing penalty at 17:24 denied them the chance to pull Allen for an extra attacker extinguishing their hopes to tie the game and force overtime.
The Flames’ disciplined style held the Habs to just 18 shots on Markstrom. That’s the fewest number of shots-on-goal the team has allowed all season.
Asked why he put the fourth line out to handle the critical last 40-seconds of the game Sutter praised the line but cryptically said “it could be that there was another line that we couldn’t put out there.” Asked to say which line, he declined.
He added, “you have to play at a pace and you have to check in this Division. I just know that we’re gonna have to be a helluva lot better.”
To a man, the Flames seemed pleased to be able to deliver Sutter a win in his first outing as head coach this season. For Sutter’s part, he dedicated Thursday’s victory to Flames’ executive, Ken King who passed away last March and to his mother’s 85th birthday that day.
Closing off the postgame presser, Sutter put his team on notice warning them, “we’ll play a much better team on Saturday night than we played tonight”.
The rubber match in the Dome at home Saturday night saw the Flames, led by Sean Monahan’s two-goal performance, down the Habs 3–1.
Monahan’s two markers gave him 200 career goals and put him alongside some of the giants in Flames’ history including Jarome Iginla, Theo Fleury, Lanny McDonald and Al MacInnis – all of whom wearing the Flaming C put 200 or more pucks behind NHL goaltenders.
In his typical understated style, the centreman said reaching the milestone “is pretty cool. It’s special when you win and you have a milestone.” Of his team’s offense, he said, “we’ve played fast and when you’re moving your feet it’s going to generate a lot more looks and that’s what we’re getting.”
Asked for his assessment of the game, Sutter said that, “I think we had a good start, meaning not necessarily because we scored the first goal, but in terms of how we went to play. And that means we’ve made some progress.”
The Flames drew first blood just over five-minutes into to the first stanza when Brett Ritchie tied up a bumbling Habs defenseman behind the Habs’ net allowing Monahan to grab the loose puck, cut to the front of the goal, spin and put a wrister behind Carey Price high on the glove side.
The Stampede City boys dominated their guests completely in the first period with fast breakouts from their own zone and a crushing forecheck. As Monahan observed, the puck, “is on and off our sticks right now, usually heading behind the Montreal defense.”
Monahan’s second goal was unassisted but was the result of Tkachuk making a nuisance of himself in front of Carey Price drawing Weber into crosschecking him leaving Monahan all alone in front of Price to net a power-play goal at 13:56.
The Flames headed into the first intermission outshooting the Habs 16 – 6
The second frame was no better for the Canadiens as Mikael Backlund put up the Flames’ third goal at 7:20 of the period. Andrew Mangiapane set up the play stripping the puck away from the Habs off a strong forecheck and then putting it on Backlund’s stick who then snapped it high over Price’s stick-side shoulder for his fifth goal of the season.
Habs’ defenseman Jeff Petry responded with Montreal’s only goal at 14:20 of the period when Jonathan Drouin slid the puck from the point to Petry who then ripped a shot from the circle past Markstrom high on the stick side.
Sutter rolled all four of his lines Saturday night but turned to the line of Elias Lindholm, Tkachuk and Dillion Dube for some extra minutes. While Tkachuk and Lindholm registered assists on the second Monahan marker, their line’s real work was on the 10 shots they put on goal. They were a huge factor in the win.
The Flames gave their fans a complete performance in all respects Saturday night. It gave the team’s first back to back win since February 11th.
Studs and Duds of the Week
Stud – Leivo for two his goals Thursday night.
Stud – The 4th Line of Leivo, Ryan and Bennett for scoring all the Flames’ points Thursday night and finally answering the question, “Where’s the Flames’ depth?”
Stud – Hanifin for offensive play Thursday night.
Stud – Sean Monahan for his two goals Saturday night
Dud – The Canadiens for dropping two against the Flames in a listless performance in both matches
The Week Ahead
This week will be a tough slog for the Flames with two games at home on Monday and Wednesday against the hated Edmonton Oilers and two more in Hogtown on Friday and Saturday against the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
Both their opponents have struggled of late. The Leafs have played .500 hockey in their last 10 games and while the Oilers have won six of their last 10, three of those victories came against the lowly Ottawa Senators. Take those games out of the equation and the Oilers are a .428 club.
All of this means the Flames have a shot this week at catapulting themselves past the Habs into the fourth and final playoff spot and putting themselves in a position to push the Oilers out of third.
Based on what the Flames delivered this week, their fans can feel good about the team’s prospects for the last half of the season. Under Sutter, the team has shown itself to be a good team capable of contending at the top of the North Division.
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