Flames Thoughts: Calgary needs its MVP back

Henrik Lundqvist made 50 saves to backstop the New York Rangers to the win over the Calgary Flames.

Henrik Lundqvist celebrated his 36th birthday by making a career-high 50 saves on 51 shots and leading the Rangers to a 3-1 victory over the Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Friday. Here are some thoughts from the game.

SHOOTING BLANKS

The Flames fired a season-high 51 shots at Lundqvist on Friday but only one of them went into the Rangers net. The Flames were especially dominant in the first and third periods, when they outshot the Rangers 19-9 and 19-8, respectively. Unfortunately for the Flames, the Rangers were much more opportunistic, scoring one goal on their nine first-period shots and two on their 10 second-period shots.

In three games this week, the Flames scored three goals on 121 shots, a 2.5 shooting percentage. As great as Ben Bishop was in the Stars’ 2-0 triumph on Tuesday and Lundqvist was in the Rangers’ 3-1 win on Friday, the Flames are going to have to find a way to give their young goaltenders more run support, to borrow a baseball term, moving forward.

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TURNING POINT

With the score tied at one in the second period, the Flames came oh-so-close to taking the lead – but the man they call “The King” made one of the most incredible saves that I’ve ever seen. On a perfect cross-crease pass from Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund slapped the puck towards what looked like an empty Rangers net. Minus his goal stick, Lundqvist dove across his crease and stopped the shot with the palm of his blocker hand. Seconds later, the Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich walked in on Jon Gillies, and on his second or third shot, pushed the puck under the goaltenders right pad and just across the goal line to make it 2-1.

The referees reviewed the play, but with some help from the NHL’s Situation Room, who provided us with the below explanation and photo evidence, quickly ruled it a good goal.

As hard as they tried, the Flames couldn’t get that goal back. The Rangers added an insurance goal when Ryan Spooner scored on a breakaway 10:48 into the second period, en route to the win.

MISSING MIKE

Before Mike Smith suffered a lower-body injury with 1.1 second left in the Flames’ 3-2 victory over the Islanders on Feb. 11, there was some debate over who the team’s most valuable player was. While you could have made a pretty strong case for Johnny Gaudreau then, it would be tough to now. In no way, shape or form is that a knock on Johnny Hockey, who despite being held off the scoresheet in four straight games for the first time this season is still tied for sixth in the Art Ross Trophy race with 73 points.

In 10 games without Smith, the Flames are 3-6-1 and the tandem of Jon Gillies and David Rittich has an .891 save percentage. Smith might be the best puck-playing goaltender in the game, and the Flames miss having him there to stop the puck and either set it up for a teammate or pass it himself, which makes it more difficult for opponents to forecheck and much easier for Calgary to break out. The Flames also miss the timely saves that Smith always seemed to make. While the 35-year-old appeared to make some progress by skating and facing some shots from goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet on Wednesday and Thursday, Glen Gulutzan told us on Friday that his return wasn’t “imminent”.

While I don’t think the goaltending of Gillies and Rittich has been the only problem, or even the biggest one, I’m also not sure that the rookie puck-stoppers are going to be the solution for a Flames team will have to be better in all aspects of the game to go on the type of run necessary to clinch a playoff spot for a second straight season. The Flames need their MVP back ASAP.

MAKE-OR-BREAK TRIP

After a one-game home stand, if you can call it that, the Flames will hit the road on Sunday for games in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa next week. By the time they play the Penguins on Monday, the Flames could be five points out of a playoff spot. Depending on what happens on the out-of-town scoreboard between now and then, the Flames will probably have to win at least two if not all three games to avoid falling further back.

Right now, Calgary is a frustrated and fragile team that desperately needs something good to happen. What could be better than a victory in Pittsburgh over the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins? A win in Game 1 of their three-game road trip on Monday would give the Flames some much-needed confidence and momentum going into winnable games against two non-contenders in the Sabres and Senators.

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