The No. 1 issue that has been established about these Calgary Flames one quarter of the way into the 2019-20 season has been their lack of consistency.
Too often the Flames have started slow, or been two versions of themselves in a single game. At times, they’ve looked like something close to the team that finished atop the Pacific Division last year, but most of the time they’ve been unfinished.
Flames coach Bill Peters has called his team out on this more than once already, saying after Tuesday’s win against the Arizona Coyotes “We have to start playing for each other, playing the right way. I don’t think we’re doing that right now. I don’t see that. If we are, I’m missing it.”
Calgary became the first NHL team to play its 20th game this season and their 10-7-3 record has them in a deceiving second place. The better divisional accomplishments have come from the upstart Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. The Flames’ .575 points percentage puts them behind their two Canadian rivals, plus Arizona and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific. Their level of play thus far has been that of a playoff bubble team.
The Flames escaped their Saturday night meeting against the defending Stanley Cup champions with a point, losing 3-2 in OT. But we have to wonder if a more polished effort could have resulted in more. On the one hand, the fire and desperation Calgary showed toward the end of the game is a good quality for a team to have, but on the other, had they started with that same emotion against a team at the tail end of a western Canadian road swing, the result could have been better.
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
If the Flames are still learning about “playing for each other” and what that really means or looks like, they should walk away with some notes from the Blues. It took St. Louis three long months to figure that out last season, but once they did, they were on a track to the Stanley Cup. Now they look like a team that could repeat in 2020.
St. Louis’ tenacious forechecking and the way they glue themselves to the puck carrier in the defensive end makes for a relentless, exhausting presence in all three zones. Closing out a four-game road trip (without superstar Vladimir Tarasenko), no one would have batted an eye if the Blues had a “foot off the pedal” kind of game, but they rose to their competition. St. Louis was the much better team in the first period, and even as the Flames started to push back somewhat in the second, the Blues still walked out of it with an advantage in scoring chances at 5-on-5 and the period’s only goal — which came on the power play.
Very few things come easy against St. Louis’ “heavy hockey.” They are organized and very well put together — this is exactly the sort of team effort Peters is desiring.
“I think you can learn from a game like this,” the coach said after. “I think there was times where we spent a little more time in the D zone than we wanted to and we weren’t clean breaking out. You gotta be able to break out on the first opportunity against good teams. And they wear you out.”
The Flames looked outmatched when they trailed 2-0 after two periods, but just like last season, Calgary is again one of the best third-period teams in the league. That’s not a bad thing. They have 24 goals in the third so far this season, second-most in the league, and have the fifth-best winning percentage when trailing after two periods. You can’t ever count them out. These are all good traits to have.
But even the teams that are the best at playing from behind have a losing record in these situations. Sure, Calgary has an impressive three wins in games they’ve trailed after 40 minutes of play, but they’ve also lost six times in regulation. You don’t want to be chasing your opponents all the time.
Calgary’s heart and soul (and future captain?) Matthew Tkachuk unsurprisingly helped kick them into gear on Saturday, scoring their first goal and cutting St. Louis’ 2-0 lead in half. It was the eighth time Tkachuk had scored in either the third period or overtime this season, a clutch stat he leads the league in, and Calgary looked like a totally different team than they did in the first two periods.
Sam Bennett searched for a little retribution from an earlier hit by MacKenzie MacEachern, levelling the Blues winger by the benches and raising the tension. The post-whistle scrum that followed resulted in a couple of penalties and some 4-on-4 hockey. And from that came an aggressive forecheck from the Flames’ Travis Hamonic and the game-tying goal.
Rough stuff up close. #HockeyNight pic.twitter.com/v0N6sfPdIs
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 10, 2019
It was another great comeback that provided an exciting finish and a well-earned point in the standings, but when the Blues scored in overtime, the more deserving team won the game.
The Blues were tough on both sides of the puck all night, but in desperate moments Calgary had at least shown it was capable of countering. Had the Flames matched St. Louis’ compete or polish from the start, and shown what they did in the final 10 minutes of the third all game long, then perhaps they’d be celebrating two points.
Possessing this ability to fight back is never a bad thing, but having to rely on it too often is not indicative of season-long success. In the end, the home side should be happy to have earned a point against the champs, but St. Louis showed the standard Calgary is still working towards.
“We’re getting better here as we go. There’s lots of good things. Lots of things that we can still work on and clean up and just tighten up a little bit,” Peters said. “It’s heading in the right direction.”
• Andrew Mangiapane was put on the second line earlier this week and looked like a fit there Saturday. He had a great primary assist on Tkachuk’s goal and that trio (with Mikael Backlund) was Calgary’s best line of the night and the only one that controlled possession. When that line was on the ice at 5-on-5, Calgary earned roughly 70 per cent of the shots on goal.
• David Rittich was fantastic again, stopping 25 of 28 shots, but his workload is going to be in the spotlight as we move forward. Rittich has started a league-leading 16 games, which puts him on track for 66 starts this season. As we know, that’s not ideal for today’s goalie. The trouble is that Calgary is chasing the top of their division right now, which will make it hard for them to find a way to sit their first quarter MVP. But it’s got to start happening.
• David Perron scored the overtime winner, which continued a great stretch for him. That was his third OT goal in the past seven games and he leads the league with five game-winning goals. The 31-year-old is on a point-per-game pace so far this season.
• These are the games where you need your best players to stand out, but Johnny Gaudreau was notably unable to get much going. In 21:52 of ice time, he recorded just one shot on goal with seven giveaways. Part of that is due to him just having the puck on his stick a lot, but it’s also because he had quite a few failed plays against St. Louis’ tough defence. When Gaudreau was on the ice at 5-on-5, Calgary earned just 38 per cent of the shots.