Flames Thoughts: Improved power play gives Flames scoring options

Five players for the Flames scored and Jon Gillies made 28 saves to help Calgary beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-1.

In their final game before the NHL trade deadline, the Calgary Flames moved back into a playoff spot with a decisive 5-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Calgary on Saturday.

Here are some thoughts from the game.

3M STARS

Going into Saturday’s game, two thirds of the Flames’ "3M" line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik were struggling.

While Tkachuk went into the contest as one of the hottest players in the league with a Western Conference co-leading 16 goals since Dec. 31, Backlund was goalless with two assists in his last 11 games and Frolik was also goalless with two assists in his last 10.

Tkachuk didn’t score a goal on Saturday, but he did record two assists, giving him 25 points (16 goals, nine assists) in the last 24 games. Backlund scored his first goal since Feb. 1 and added two assists. Frolik tallied for the first time since Feb. 3.

Not only did the "3M" line lead the way offensively for the Flames, they were also fantastic defensively. Tkachuk, Backlund and Frolik went head-to-head with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen almost all afternoon, and other than the strange goal that MacKinnon scored on a dump-in from centre ice, the top Avalanche line was almost invisible.

After the game, Tkachuk was named the third star, Frolik the second and Backlund the first. The "3M" line was simply outstanding on Saturday. If the Flames are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need more of the same moving forward from a group that has the potential to be one of the best two-way lines in the league.

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FLAMING-HOT POWER PLAY

For months, the Flames biggest Achilles heel was their power play. Before losing Kris Versteeg to a hip injury on Nov. 24, the power play was operating at a pretty impressive 21.6 per cent, 11th in the NHL.

After Versteeg went down, the Flames struggled mightily to find a player to replace him on the right flank of their one-three-one, four forward, one defenceman first unit power play, and at 12.9 per cent, only the Oilers’ power play was worse.

The Flames decided to change things up on Feb. 8, when they started using three forwards and two defencemen on both power plays and moved Dougie Hamilton onto the first unit along with Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. Since then, the Flames have the third-best power play in the league at 27.3 per cent.

With two power play goals in Saturday’s victory over the Avalanche, the Flames have now scored at least one power play goal in six consecutive contests, going nine-for-21, a 42.9 per cent success rate. The Flames have gone from using a BB gun to a cannon on the PP, which has become a real weapon for them in the last two weeks.

GILLIES GOOD AGAIN

After stopping 35 of 37 shots in his first NHL start of the season and the second of his career in a 5-2 win in Arizona on Thursday, Jon Gillies was rewarded with his first-ever home start in Calgary on Saturday.

With the Flames leading 2-0 in the first period, Nathan MacKinnon scored on a dump-in from centre ice which skipped past Gillies, hit the goal post, bounced off of his backside and into the net. While that was a tough goal to give up, Gillies was really good before and after it, turning aside 28 of 29 shots to improve to 3-0-0 as an NHL starter.

Before the game, general manager Brad Treliving met with the media and reiterated that the team’s No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith, who was put on injured reserve on Saturday morning almost two weeks after suffering a lower body injury with 1.1 seconds left in the Flames’ road win over the Islanders on Feb. 11, is still considered day-to-day.

With that said, Smith has barely skated and, best-case scenario, will return to the Flames net in a week or two.

With a pair of big games on the road in Dallas and Denver coming up on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Flames will more than likely need the tandem of Gillies and David Rittich to help them pick up some much-needed points in those games against the Stars and Avalanche.

With a pair of rookie goalies, the Flames have to play well in front of Gillies and Rittich, who shouldn’t be counted on to win games for the team the same way Smith did time and time again when healthy. With that said, Gillies and Rittich also can’t lose games by giving up bad goals.

Assuming Smith returns to the net and returns to form sooner rather than later, his injury could actually be a blessing in disguise, for a couple of reasons.

The team leaned heavily on the 35-year-old prior to his injury and going a few weeks in between games should help him rest-up for the playoffs, should the Flames qualify.

Also, in my opinion, the Flames relied too much on Smith at times. Without their all-star puck-stopper, Flames forwards and defencemen have to be better at both ends of the ice to win games. One would hope that if and when Smith returns, he can pick up where he left off and the team in front of him can play to their potential on a consistent basis. If that happens, the Flames will become a Western Conference contender.

WHEELING AND DEALING

Treliving is widely considered to be one of the hardest-working general managers in the NHL, constantly calling, texting, e-mailing and messenger pigeoning other GMs to get the scoop on what’s going on around the league to find out if there’s a way he can make his team better.

When he met with the media prior to Saturday’s game, Treliving said, “There are all sorts of different waters I think people are swimming in. We’re sort of taking calls, making calls but, as usual, the prices for expiring contracts are high.”

I don’t think the Flames would be willing to trade one of their top prospects, including goaltenders Gillies and Tyler Parsons, defencemen Rasmus Andersson, Adam Fox, Oliver Kylington and Juuso Valimaki, forward Dillon Dube or their first-round pick in 2019 for a rental player with an expiring contract. But I do believe that they’d be willing to part with one or more of those players for someone with a minimum of one year remaining on their contract who they believe could be a core piece in the present and the future.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flames make a "hockey trade," one that includes a player or players from their active roster.

At the top of my wish list would be a top-six winger that could play on the first line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau or on the second line with Tkachuk and Backlund. While I don’t think the Flames necessarily need to replace Micheal Ferland or Frolik on the top two lines, having the option to put one of those players on the third line would make them a better, deeper team.

There are plenty of intriguing options out there, including the Senators’ Mike Hoffman, the Canadiens’ Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty, the Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner, the Red Wings’ Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar or the Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello.

Depending on the price, I would even consider the Sabres’ Evander Kane, but wouldn’t surrender a high-end prospect for him unless I could re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent.

While I would consider the Flames to be a real long shot, at best, in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes, I’d be shocked if Treliving didn’t at least ask Senators GM Pierre Dorion what Karlsson would cost him.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is another player who probably needs a change of scenery, but I’m not sure the Coyotes would want to trade him to a Pacific Division rival, especially with the success that Mike Smith has had since they traded him to the Flames last summer.

All that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Treliving did something to improve his team before the trade deadline at 1 p.m. Mountain Time on Monday.

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