After turning in arguably their best performance of the season on Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild, the Calgary Flames followed it up with a clutch overtime win at New Jersey on Friday. Having now won three in a row for only the third time this year, the team has to be hoping it can begin to find the consistency they’ve been searching for all season.
The persistent theme of alternating wins and losses has kept the Flames right on the fringe of the playoff race all year. While there are a lot of factors going into in Calgary’s up-and-down play, the key to finding that consistency must start first with establishing some consistency between the pipes.
Meritocracy Isn’t the Way
Stemming from Brian Elliott’s early-season struggles, coach Glen Gulutzan has generally stuck with a “win and you’re in” philosophy when choosing his starting netminder for most of the season. It’s a system that has worked for some teams before, but as the Flames enter the stretch run scrambling to make the playoffs and struggling in net, it’s time to acknowledge that bouncing between goalies is just not working for this team.
Looking back, at the beginning of December the Flames went on a six-game tear where Chad Johnson started each and every game. Beyond that, the team has twice won three straight where Elliott started every contest, and has also won back-to-back games on five other occasions. In all of those instances, not once have Elliott and Johnson split the starts in consecutive wins. Not once.
"If you want to play, you've got to perform." – Brian Elliott pic.twitter.com/tUXv5g1zkh
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) February 1, 2017
So, each and every single time the Flames have won two or more consecutive games this season, it’s been done by sticking with one goaltender. It’s clear that both of these keepers have proven capable of going on a run and handling stretches of games, but if they lose a game, it most often means they’ll be riding the bench the next night. That sort of added pressure can wear on a player and prevent him from feeling comfortable enough to really string together a strong run of play.
After running with this juggling act for months now and failing to see either goalie really take the job, it might just be time to give one netminder an extended run of starts where he doesn’t need to worry about losing his role after just one loss. But if they’re going to do it, who should be the given that chance to take the ball and run with it as the team’s starter?
A Look at the Numbers
Neither of the Flames’ goaltenders played particularly well to start the season, both going one game below .500 in October, with save percentages hovering around .900 and a goals-against average just under 3.00. The early struggles, though, really hurt Elliott the most, as he was the one brought in to be the cure to the Flames’ goaltending woes, so the bar was set quite high for him.
November is where things really fell off the rails for Elliott. He went winless in six starts while Chad Johnson came out of nowhere to post a .930 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average in winning seven of his 10 starts. It was here that the fans, the media, and the head coach clearly lost their confidence in Elliott as this team’s number one. Johnson was putting up Vezina-worthy numbers in November and would then kick off December with that six-game winning streak.
Somewhat surprisingly though, the gap in performance between these two players since that early-December run has completely flipped, and it’s gone way under the radar. Since Johnson’s six-game run ended on Dec. 10, here’s a look at how his numbers stack up against Elliott’s:
It’s not even close, really. Over the course of the entire season, Johnson certainly still has better numbers than Elliott, but over the past two months Elliott has put up solid numbers, while Johnson has really struggled to find his game.
With that in mind, who deserves to carry the mail down the stretch? The back-and-forth clearly isn’t working, so can Gulutzan trust Elliott again after his horrid start to the season, or does the team maybe feel that Johnson is, in fact, capable of going on another tear?
The Answer is Clear
With Johnson playing so well through to early December while the Flames found their winning ways, there was a push to re-sign him immediately and possibly even just trade away Brian Elliott. Thankfully, the front office remained patient and didn’t make any rash decisions based on a month or two of play from either netminder.
At the end of the day, Chad Johnson is an excellent backup, and may even be a bit more than that, but he is hardly the first career-backup to go on an otherworldly run over a few weeks, and he certainly won’t be the last to do it. At 30 years old, the odds are that Chad Johnson is what he’s been for the bulk of his career, and the Flames should still be happy to have that.
Ultimately, though, Brian Elliott’s early-season struggles are just as outside of the norm as Johnson’s hot streak was, and it would be smart for the Flames to bank on him returning to the form he’s shown his whole career.
Elliott isn’t going to be confused for Carey Price anytime soon, but he has consistently been the best option for Calgary over the past two months, and it’s time for the team to recognize that and give him another shot as the full-time starter. It’s their best chance to find that much-needed consistency between the pipes, which would go a long way to helping the Flames make a postseason push.
Calgary-based writer covering all things Flames. Follow me on Twitter @glenneberth