After wrapping up a three-game road trip with a pair of impressive wins, the Flames will host Bruins and Predators this week
SAM BENNETT FINDS HIS GAME — AND THE NET
Since the day the Flames drafted him fourth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft, expectations have been high for Sam Bennett. Now in his fourth full NHL season (he skated in one regular season and 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2014-15), the highest pick in franchise history was a force during his team’s three-game road trip through the Central Division last week.
After going pointless in the first two games, Bennett should have recorded his first point in last Tuesday’s 3-0 shutout victory over the Predators, but because an official mistakenly blew his whistle when the Flames had possession of the puck with a delayed penalty call coming up against their opponent, Bennett’s goal didn’t count.
On Thursday, Bennett was directly responsible for two Flames goals in a 5-3 loss to the Blues. The feisty left-winger snapped a 16-game pointless streak dating back to Mar. 9 of last season when he made a nice play to get the primary assist on James Neal’s first goal of the season.
Bennett came close to scoring his first goal of 2018-19 a little later on. No. 93 drove the net and got tangled up with Blues’ Captain Alex Pietrangelo, who inadvertently kicked a Mikael Backlund centring pass into his own net. Bennett didn’t pick up a point on the goal, but the Flames wouldn’t have scored it without him.
As good as he was in Nashville and St. Louis, the 22-year-old was even better in Denver on Saturday. The Avalanche completely dominated the Flames for the first 25 minutes and led 2-0 on a pair of early goals by Nathan MacKinnon and J.T. Compher. But with his team trailing on the scoreboard and reeling on the ice, Bennett turned the tide with a huge hit on Compher about five minutes into the second period.
And then, just past the midway mark of the middle stanza, Bennett snapped a 17-game goalless streak when he crashed the net and shovelled a rebound past Semyon Varlamov, cutting the Avalanche lead to 2-1.
It was a huge goal for Bennett and the Flames, who battled back to win in overtime.
I’m anxious to see who Bennett plays with this week. After starting the season on the fourth line, Bennett worked his way up to the second line in the second and third periods last Saturday and looked great playing with Backlund and Neal.
Going into the season, I called Bennett a wildcard. If he becomes anything even close to the player that the Flames (and NHL Central Scouting, who had him ranked first) thought he would be when they made him the highest draft pick in Flames history, he could help the team go from playoff contender to Cup contender.
In 2014-15, the Flames found so many new and inventive ways to win, they earned the nickname the ‘Find-A-Way Flames,’ coming from behind to win 13 regular season and post-season games when trailing following 40 minutes.
Last season, one of the reasons why the Flames missed the playoffs is they found more ways to lose than to win close games, especially at home.
Five games into the 2018-19 season, the Flames have already battled back to win two games they trailed in through two periods of play. In their home opener versus the Canucks on Oct. 6, the Flames trailed 4-3 after 40 before scoring four unanswered goals in the third period, en route to a 7-4 win. Last Saturday, Bill Peters’ squad was down 2-1 to start the third, before scratching and clawing their way to a 3-2 overtime win.
Good teams often find ways to win while bad teams usually find ways to lose. So far this season, the Flames have been the former as opposed to the latter.
BUMPS AND BRUISES
The injury bug has bitten a number of NHL teams early in the season.
Among the players on injured reserve in the Pacific Division alone are the Ducks’ Patrick Eaves, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ondrej Kase, the Coyotes’ Jakob Chychrun, Christian Dvorak and Alex Galchenyuk, the Oilers’ Andrej Sekera, the Kings’ Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick, the Sharks’ Joe Thornton, the Canucks’ Jay Beagle and Elias Pettersson and the Golden Knights’ Deryk Engelland and Paul Stastny.
As far as the Flames are concerned, Travis Hamonic has missed the last four games with facial fractures suffered in a fight with the Canucks’ Erik Gudbranson on opening night. The good news is Hamonic, who is listed as week-to-week, started skating on his own Monday.
The bad news is after blocking a Colin Wilson shot in last Saturday’s victory over the Avalanche, No. 1 centre Sean Monahan missed practice on Monday. In addition, No. 2 centre Backlund, who missed a practice last week, was unable to finish practice on Monday.
Monahan’s situation may be more worrisome than Backlund’s. After an injury-riddled 2014-15 season, maintenance days have become a fairly regular occurrence for Backlund since then, and he’s only missed one game in the last four seasons.
On the other hand, Monahan proved last season that he is both able and willing to play through injuries. The Flames shut the five-time 20-goal scorer down when they fell out of the playoff race late in the regular season and a few weeks later, announced that Monahan had undergone four surgeries to repair wrist, hip and groin issues.
While both Backlund and Monahan were able to finish last Saturday’s game against the Avalanche, their availability for Wednesday’s game against the Bruins is in question.
One thing has become very obvious early in Peters’ tenure behind the Flames bench: If the head coach isn’t happy with the way his team is playing, changes, they are a comin’!
Following his team’s 5-3 loss in St. Louis last Thursday, Peters made a plethora of changes for last Saturday’s game in Denver.
David Rittich got his first start of the season in goal. Garnet Hathaway made his regular season debut, playing on a line with Derek Ryan, who was moved from third line centre to fourth line left wing, and Mark Jankowski, who returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch in the previous two games.
With Hathaway and Jankowski in, Michael Frolik and Anthony Peluso were the healthy scratches versus the Avalanche.
While few were surprised to see Peluso replaced, it sure was strange to see Frolik sitting in the press box. Of course, these line-up changes led to line changes, as well.
Now in his 11th NHL season, Frolik is a consummate professional. An important part of the ‘3M’ line with Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk the past two seasons, it looked like the 30-year-old had fully recovered from a broken jaw — suffered when he was hit by a slapshot off the stick of Sharks’ defenceman Brent Burns on Dec. 29 of last season — when for the second straight year, he finished first in fitness testing at Flames’ training camp.
Unfortunately for Frolik, he struggled to find his footing playing a reduced role for a Flames team that appears to be deeper this season than it has been in more than a decade.
When the Flames added right wingers Elias Lindholm and James Neal during the off-season and it looked more than likely that Frolik would find himself outside of the team’s top-six, I said, on a number of occasions, that any team with a player like Frolik in their bottom-six is a good team. My opinion hasn’t changed.
I strongly believe that Frolik will respond to being a healthy scratch for the first time in six seasons in a positive way and will be an important player for Peters moving forward.
General Manager Brad Treliving has built a deep team. With that depth comes built-in accountability. If players aren’t performing, they can be and will be replaced.
If Flames players weren’t aware of that before Jankowski and Frolik were scratched, the certainly should be now.
TWO TOUGH TESTS
After picking up four of a possible six points during a three-game road trip last week, the Flames return to the Scotiabank Saddledome for a two-game homestand this week.
On Wednesday, Matthew Tkachuk and co. will battle Brad Marchand and the 4-1 Boston Bruins.
On Friday, Mark Giordano and the Flames will play host to P.K. Subban and the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators. The Flames are the only team to beat the 5-1-0 Predators this season.