Flames Thoughts: Smith deserves chance to work through struggles

Henrik Sedin scored his first goal of the season and the Vancouver Canucks outlasted the Calgary Flames.

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.

Despite outshooting, out-chancing and outplaying their opponent on Tuesday night, the Calgary Flames didn’t outscore the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-3 loss at Scotiabank Saddledome.

1. THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

The Flames outshot the Canucks 32-21. Shot attempts were 65-39. According to coach Glen Gulutzan, his team out-chanced Travis Green’s 18-12. The Flames had 2-1 and 3-2 leads. That’s the good news. The bad news? The Canucks won 5-3.

Yes, the Flames had a goal overturned on a coach’s challenge. Yes, Jacob Markstrom was sensational, making eight or nine 10-bell saves. But in the end, the Flames made some costly mistakes and lost a game they should have won. On the flip side, playing their second game in as many nights, the opportunistic Canucks got great goaltending and some good bounces and found a way to pick up two points on the road.

2. JOHNNY BE GOOD

Another game and another point for Johnny Gaudreau, who stretched his season-long point streak to five games with a goal on Tuesday night. Now in his fourth full NHL season, Gaudreau is playing the best hockey of his life.

He’s always been good with the puck — and that hasn’t changed in 2017-18. After Tuesday’s games, Gaudreau was tied for fifth in the Art Ross Trophy race with 19 points in 15 games.

Gaudreau’s play without the puck is where his game has grown the most this season. Gaudreau is at his best when he’s using his speed to apply back pressure on opponents and pick-pocketing them in the neutral zone. I’ve seen a lot more of that this season than in the past.

Gaudreau has also improved defensively, making up for what he lacks in size and strength with his high hockey IQ. Mike Smith has been the Flames’ MVP 15 games into the season. For me, Johnny Hockey is second on that list.

3. ROCK BOTTOM SIX

The Flames’ bottom six got a boost on Tuesday with the return Jaromir Jagr from a groin injury that caused him to miss six games. The NHL’s second all-time leading scorer played right-wing on a line with centre Mark Jankowski and left winger Sam Bennett. The threesome looked really good at times, especially in the first half of the hockey game.

The team’s other bottom-six line of Kris Versteeg, Curtis Lazar and Troy Brouwer also had some good shifts, especially Versteeg, who looked as good against the Canucks as he has in any game this season. The third and fourth lines had a total of eight shots on goal, including four off the stick of Versteeg. The problem is the six players in question were held off the scoresheet. Again.

When asked if he was happy with the scoring chances created by his bottom six forwards, Gulutzan’s response was pointed, “They gotta score.” He’s right. The Flames need more from their third and fourth lines moving forward. With that said, my guess is they’re about to start getting more goals, assists and points from their third and fourth lines. It’s only a matter of time before Bennett, Jagr, Jankowski and Versteeg start capitalizing on the chances that they’re getting.

I also believe that when those guys get the monkey off their backs, the flood gates will likely open. There is too much talent in the bottom six for the offensive struggles to continue.

4. IMPROVED POWER PLAY

After going 1-for-17 on their most recent power plays prior to Tuesday’s game, the Flames went 2-for-4 with the man advantage against the Canucks.

Assistant coach Dave Cameron, who is in charge of the team’s PP, spent considerable time coaching the first and second units at practice in the last few days and asked his players to have more of an attack mentality and a more of a shooting mentality.

The new approach worked, as did using Micheal Ferland as the net-front forward on the first unit. Five-on-five play has been good for quite some time and their power play was good on Tuesday. The penalty kill? Not so much. The Canucks went 2-for-3 on the PP.

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5. SMITH’S STRUGGLES?

Has Mike Smith been as good in the last two games as he was earlier this season? No. Is the No. 1 netminder the main reason why the team has given up nine goals in the last two games? Absolutely not.

After looking like a puck-stopping machine in almost all of his first 12 starts of the season, Smith has looked human in the last two contests. He’s given up a couple of iffy goals. His rebound control hasn’t been as good. He’s made some mistakes playing the puck.

During the course of an 82-game regular season schedule, players and teams are going to have some ups and downs. While Smith hasn’t been at his best the last two games, he has still been the Flames’ best player this season. His backup, Eddie Lack, has only started one game and appeared in two games this season.

With the way the last two games have gone, I can’t help but wonder if Gulutzan will give Smith a breather by starting Lack against the Red Wings on Thursday. If the coach decides to go in that direction, I’d certainly understand. But, if it were up to me, I’d go right back to Smith on Thursday (assuming the goaltender is feeling up to it).

Smith is incredibly competitive. Gulutzan might have to handcuff him to the Calgary Tower to keep him off the ice on Thursday. After giving up four and five goals, respectively, in the last two games, Smith is probably champing at the bit to get back in the net. I would give him that opportunity for two reasons: he’s earned it and the schedule allows for it.

Following Thursday’s game against the Red Wings, the Flames won’t return to the ice until next Monday, when they’ll wrap-up their season-long seven-game homestand versus the Blues.