Derek Wills is the Calgary Flames radio play-by-play announcer on Sportsnet 960 The FAN. He shares his views about the Flames’ latest game.
1. PERFECT GAME
After spending six seasons in the desert, Smith faced his former team for the first time on Thursday night and stopped every single Coyotes shots. Because his teammates played one of their most complete games of the season, Smith didn’t have to be great on Thursday, but he played pretty much a perfect game, making 28 saves for his second shutout of the season.
Smith was also flawless playing the puck, which fed the Flames offence by helping the team transition the puck out of the defensive zone. It was fitting that the Flames’ 35-year-old goaltender recorded the 35th shutout of his NHL career versus the Coyotes. Not only did Smith spend six seasons with Phoenix/Arizona, he made his NHL debut versus the Coyotes on October 21, 2006 as a member of the Stars. On that night more than 12 years ago, Smith, then 23-years-of-age, recorded his first-career win and first-career shutout by stopping all 22 Coyotes shots.
2. JANKO UNCHAINED
Goalless and pointless in seven games since recording a career-high two goals and three points in a 7-4 victory over the St. Blues on November 13, the Flames’ No. 77 scored two goals, including the game-winner, in Thursday’s win. Since being recalled from the Stockton Heat on October 23rd, Jankowski has had his ups and downs, which is to be expected with a player who prior to this season had played in only one NHL game. With that said, there have been way more ups than downs.
The 23-year-old looks like an NHLer, and in my opinion, has probably played his last AHL game. When the Flames surprisingly selected Jankowski 21st overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, he was 6-foot-2 and 170-pounds. Five years later, he’s 6-foot-4 and 210-pounds. The Flames believe he can (and will) add another 10 pounds, which will make him more difficult to handle than he already is. Five weeks after being recalled by the Flames, Jankowski is still staying in a hotel—but I suspect he’ll be asked to check-out and find a place to live in Calgary sometime soon.
3. BENNETT’S BEST
Despite what the statistics may lead you to believe, Sam Bennett has played some of his best hockey of late. After snapping a six-game pointless streak with one assist in the Flames’ 4–1 loss to the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, No. 93 recorded two assists in his team’s win on Thursday. Glen Gulutzan told us on Thursday morning that Bennett’s last 10-game segment was the second-best of his NHL career as far as scoring chances are concerned.
While Bennett hasn’t yet lived up to the expectations that come with being the highest draft pick in franchise history, the fourth-overall selection in the 2014 NHL Draft has been better than his one goal and six points in 25 games this season would suggest. Bennett has been on the puck and around the net for a while, and is finally starting to get rewarded. Confidence, or a lack thereof, can be a powerful thing. For young players like Bennett, who have never had trouble producing points, failing to find the scoresheet can kill their confidence.
On the flip side, getting goals and assists can quickly build confidence, which tends to lead to more points. In my opinion, the third line will make or break the Flames this season. If the trio of former first-round picks of Bennett, Jankowski and Jaromir Jagr continues to spend significant time cycling the puck in the offensive zone and provides secondary scoring, as they did in Thursday’s win, the Flames will be a difficult team to matchup against, and in-turn, a tough team to beat.
4. BRING ON THE BATTLE OF ALBERTA
When the 2017-18 schedule was released on June 22, the first five Flames games that I circled were all against the same opponent—the Oilers. While the Battle of Alberta will never be what it was in the 1980’s, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be great again.
Last season, for the first time in a long time, games between the Flames and the Oilers were truly meaningful for both teams. Despite getting swept by their provincial rival in their four-game season series, the Flames made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, before being swept by the Ducks in the first round. As for the Oilers, after qualifying for post-season play for the first time in 11 seasons, they too were eliminated by the Ducks, but were only one win away from the Western Conference Final. When 2017-18 started, expectations were high in Calgary and even higher in Edmonton. When the Oilers shutout the Flames 3-0 in the season-opener at Rogers Place on October 4, some in the “City of Champions” started planning the Oilers’ Stanley Cup parade, while others in the “Stampede City” were trying to figure out who the Flames might select with their lottery pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
While it was way too early to be planning for the summer, I must admit that I didn’t think there was any way the Flames would be seven points ahead of the Oilers going into game two of their five-game season series on December 2. Saturday’s Battle of Alberta is a big one. The Flames have lost five straight games versus the Oilers and have to prove to themselves that they can beat Connor McDavid and company. Win or lose at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday night, the Oilers are still going to be in hole when they wake up on Sunday morning—but a nine-point-deep hole following a regulation loss to the Flames would be a lot deeper than a five-point-hole after a regulation win.
Even though the Flames and Oilers aren’t where most thought they would be going into round two of this season’s Battle of Alberta, Saturday’s game is important for both teams, albeit for different reasons. While it’s way too early in the season to call any game a “must win,” already seven points up on their provincial rival with a game in-hand, it feels like Saturday’s game is a “want” for the Flames and a “need” for the Oilers. Personally, I can’t wait to call round two of this season’s Battle of Alberta.