Four straight second-period deflections off the bodies of Colorado Avalanche players helped vault the Flames to their ninth win in their last 12 games. However, as friendly as the puck was, it also may have done some severe damage to the Flames’ playoffs hopes when standout centre Mikael Backlund left the game late in the same period. He took a puck off the knee while helping to kill off a five-on-three power play and didn’t return, causing many Flames fans to worry. After all, Backlund has done everything well this season as a penalty killer, shutdown centre, and offensively, netting six points in the last two games.
“We just hope it’s a bruise and (Backlund) can carry forward,” head coach Glen Gulutzan said in an interview with the Calgary Herald. “But that’s the residual of taking too many penalties, and that’s something that we have to address.
“I think we’ve got our average up enough and know we can kill one that we have to start dialing in on how many penalties were taking. It’s going to end up biting us.”
Outstanding Special Teams
Today, the Calgary Flames are still the most penalized team in the league with 451 penalty minutes in just 37 games. However, their penalty kill percentage since Dec. 1 ranks fourth in the NHL at 90.5% thanks to an ongoing streak of 18 straight kills without a goal against. Surprisingly, they have also been the best in the NHL in December on the power play, scoring 36.6% of the time. This is a feat no fan would’ve expected given their league-worst results on special teams during October and November. The improvement has long been anticipated but consistency is likely to be an ongoing issue over the long season.
“We still have work to do,” said Gulutzan to the Calgary Herald. “That’s one piece of the puzzle, is the specialty teams game, and you can see what happens when you win it.”
With six of their next seven games coming against teams behind them in the standings, the Flames will need to grab as many points as possible during the first half of January in order to have a hope of remaining in the playoff race. Some fans have optimism as the special teams have improved. The goaltending of Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott has also been solid, and there has been scoring by committee of late from players like Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk, which has kept the Flames ahead on most nights in December.
How Will the Puck Bounce in 2017?
The Flames have played quite well recently but there is still a lot to worry about heading into the new year. The defensive pairings of T.J. Brodie and Dennis Wideman along with Deryk Engelland and Jyrki Jokipakka and/or Tyler Wotherspoon have been anything but steady. Brodie still owns one of the league’s worst plus/minus ratings at minus-18 while Jokipakka and Wotherspoon have struggled to demonstrate a consistent NHL-calibre style of play.
Right now, the Flames are the fifth-worst team in the NHL in goals against at 106 and have only managed to score a total of 100 goals. These kinds of results are not sustainable for an NHL playoff team and are only likely to trend negatively as games become progressively more important in March and April. No doubt, getting more goals out of underachieving players like Sean Monahan, Troy Brouwer, Lance Bouma and Alex Chiasson will be necessary if the Flames want to sell playoff tickets this season.
It might be difficult but I also think the Flames need to seek a defensive upgrade or two before the NHL trade deadline. Trading Dennis Wideman and his massive contract isn’t likely to happen, and even though Brodie has struggled immensely this season, it would be quite a risk to trade a player of his capability just because he doesn’t have a quality defense partner. Finding an upgrade for Jokipakka, Wotherspoon or Wideman would be a fantastic outcome for the Flames, but it may not be possible considering the contracts involved and the strategy the Flames want to follow to minimize their losses in the upcoming expansion draft.
As with most big decisions, the Flames will need to balance their short-term desires with their long-term goals to determine the best way to approach the second half of this NHL season. They’ve been fortunate so far that their team has performed well enough to be in the hunt for a playoff spot. However, star players like Backlund, Gaudreau, Giordano and Dougie Hamilton will need to avoid injury while other players will have to step up offensively and defensively in the second half if this hockey season is going to be a memorable one in Calgary.