The Flames erased a 2-0 deficit and improved to 2-0 versus the Los Angeles Kings this season with a 4-3 victory over their Pacific Division foe at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday.
ANOTHER CHARACTER-BUILDING WIN
In their final game of 2017, the Flames let a 3-0 lead slip away and surrendered the game-tying goal with their opponent’s goaltender on the bench, an extra attacker on the ice and less than two minutes remaining in regulation time. They rebounded to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime.
The Flames were okay in that New Year’s Eve victory, but they should have been better playing with a three-goal lead. With that said, during the month of December there were a lot of games that the Flames could have won or should have won that they didn’t, so it was important that they found a way to pick up an important pair of points in a game that could have gone either way. Thursday’s contest was different.
In the first 10-or-so minutes of their first game of 2018, Calgary looked like a team that hadn’t played in three months, as opposed to a team that hadn’t played in three days. After being completely out-classed by the Kings in the first half of the first period and falling behind 1-0, the Flames seemed to find their legs and find their game. Despite being a lot better in the second half of the period, the Flames fell behind by two with 45 seconds left. Tanner Pearson’s tally looked like a back-breaker.
To their credit, not only did the Flames stick with it, they elevated their game to another level. As a matter of fact, Glen Gulutzan’s group probably played their best period of 2017-18, scoring four goals and completely dominating one of the best teams in the NHL. If not for Jonathan Quick, the Flames probably would have had an even larger lead at the end of the second.
Up following 40 minutes is a good position to be for every team, and a great one for the Flames, who went into lock-down mode in the third period to improve to 12-0-1 this season and 45-0-2 the last two seasons when leading through two periods of play with a hard-fought 4-3 triumph.
The Kings absolutely dominated the game early on. Despite giving up a goal that I’m sure Mike Smith would like to have back 4:47 in— when Kings defenceman Derek Forbort scored for the first time in 94 games—the Flames goaltender was the only reason Calgary was still within one goal halfway through the opening period.
At one point, the Kings were up 13-3 on the shot clock, but as he’s done so many times this season, Smith kept the Flames close. Momentum started to shift when the Torrey Mitchell and Jake Muzzin took penalties just before the 11- and 13-minute marks. The Flames didn’t score on either of those power plays, but they stopped the bleeding by spending less time in the defensive zone and more time in the offensive zone where they got some shots, created some chances and picked up some much-needed momentum.
By my count, the Kings only had one high-danger scoring chance in the back half of the first period (and capitalized on it) and the Flames were the better of the two teams for most of the final 50 minutes. While there is still some work to be done on the power play—especially the first-unit—the Flames do appear to be making progress on both sides of special teams.
It was a rocky week for some Flames coaches, players and even one of their broadcasters (yours truly), because of a nasty flu bug that has been biting. After they missed not one, but two practices this week, I wondered if the Flames would be without forwards Mikael Backlund and Micheal Ferland versus the Kings. Thankfully, they were not.
After receiving IV therapy, Backlund and Ferland both played on Thursday night, and played well. As usual, Backlund had to do a lot of heavy lifting, going head-to-head with the other team’s top centre. On Thursday, that was arguably the league’s top two-way pivot, Anze Kopitar. While Backlund’s stat line didn’t look great (pointless, 2 shots, minus-2), he prevented Kopitar and the Kings’ number-one line from taking over.
Backlund also did a great job in the faceoff circle, winning 61 per cent of his draws, including a number of key defensive zone faceoffs versus Kopitar late in the third period when the Kings were trying to tie the game. As for Ferland, he got the Flames on the scoreboard, establishing a new career-high with his 16th goal of the season, added an assist, had three hits and made life miserable for the Kings’ goaltender and defencemen all night long.
The flu hit me hard on Sunday. I was so sick I was forced to miss a Flames morning skate for the first time in my four seasons covering the team and could barely get out of bed and get dressed to get down to Scotiabank Saddledome to call the game. Thankfully, Backlund and Ferland are a lot tougher than I am and were able to fight through the flu, and in Ferland’s case, strep throat, to play in Thursday’s game. Without them, the Kings likely would have left the ‘Dome with two points. Kudos to Kent Kobelka and the Flames medical staff for managing those illnesses.
The Flames won their last game of 2017 and their first game of 2018, and their 4-3 victories over the Blackhawks and Kings were both big. With that said, you could argue that Saturday’s contest versus their archenemy, the Anaheim Ducks, is the Flames’ biggest game so far this season.
With Thursday’s win, the Flames gained some ground on a number of teams in the fight for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, including the Ducks. Going into Friday’s games, the Flames sit three points out of third place in the Pacific Division and three points out of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. What could make qualifying for post-season play more difficult this season is the fact that the Arizona Coyotes are really the only team in the west that’s out of the race.
With approximately half a season to play, 14 of the 15 teams in the conference are still fighting for a playoff spot. While I expect the Vancouver Canucks to eventually fall out, they haven’t yet. Unlike some, I’m still not counting the Edmonton Oilers out, especially after they rebounded from two embarrassing 5-0 losses to the Winnipeg Jets and Kings on home ice by beating the Ducks in a shootout at Rogers Place on Thursday.
If the Flames are going to play spring hockey for the second straight season and for the third time in four years, they’re going to have to beat the teams that they’re battling with for a playoff spot more often than not moving forward. They have done that in back-to-back games, knocking-off the Blackhawks on Sunday and coming from behind to beat the Kings on Thursday. Next up, a proverbial four-pointer versus the Ducks, one of the teams separating them from a playoff position.
Good or bad, I expect to get an update on Jaromir Jagr on Friday. After playing in the first three games following the Christmas break and after being a full participant at practice on New Year’s Day, the league’s oldest player and active leader in almost every offensive category has been MIA.
After missing all of training camp and the pre-season, Jagr has been dealing with at least one nagging lower-body injury for most of, if not all of the regular season, limiting the future Hall of Famer to 22 games. He didn’t practice with the Flames on Tuesday or Wednesday and didn’t play in Thursday’s game against the Kings. When asked about Jagr’s status following the team’s morning skate on Thursday, Gulutzan would only say the team would have an update tomorrow (Friday).
Throughout Jagr’s struggles to stay healthy this season, the head coach has basically delivered the same message with the same tone—until Thursday, which raised a red flag for me and others who cover the team everyday.
The way I see it, there are three possible scenarios:
1. Jagr is still day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
2. They are going to shut down the soon-to-be 46-year-old to further evaluate him, to give him time to heal or to do surgery to try to repair his injury (or injuries).
3. The living and playing legend has decided the call it a career.
While I have no inside information on what news will be delivered on Friday, my gut tells me it’s not going to be good. I hope I’m wrong.