TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Trailing the Oilers 6-1 early in the third period, the Flames made things mighty interesting. Sam Bennett tallied twice while Micheal Ferland and Johnny Gaudreau each scored once to turn a five-goal game into a one-goal game. Shortly after cutting the Oilers’ lead to 6-5, the Flames top two offensive players, Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, got a long two-on-one with a chance to tie it. Gaudreau, fourth in the NHL in assists, used Monahan, tied for fifth in the league in goals, as a decoy and missed the net with a shot. That was the Flames’ best chance to square the score in the final eight minutes.
The Oilers, who were definitely the better of the two teams and deserved to pick up a pair of points, sealed the deal with a little bit more than one minute remaining, when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins bounced the puck in off of T.J. Brodie’s stick to make it 7-5. In 2014-15, the “Find-a-way Flames” probably would have found a way to win that game…but not in 2017-18.
With the way their season has gone, what happened, or didn’t happen, in the final 7:20 of Saturday’s game, may have saved the Oilers’ season. In a week that has included a Peter Chiarelli “State of the Franchise” press conference, an own-goal by Kris Russell to break a 4-4 tie late in the third period of a 6-4 loss to the Maple Leafs and injuries to starting goaltender Cam Talbot and top-pairing defenceman Adam Larsson, I’m not sure the Oilers’ would have been able to bounce back from blowing a five-goal third period lead to the Flames. But, they don’t have to. A regulation loss on Saturday night would have left the Oilers nine points behind the Flames. Instead, Edmonton pulled to within five points of their provincial rivals from Calgary.
Saturday’s game was bigger for the Oilers than it was for the Flames – and they played like it. Even though he hasn’t been the same goaltender this season as he was last, the game probably wouldn’t have been close if Talbot was tending the twine. Laurent Brossoit let the Flames back into the game in the third period and has now surrendered five or more goals in four of his five starts this season. With the hole that their slow start to the season has them in, I’m not sure the Oilers can afford to roll the dice with Brossoit with Talbot out for the next two weeks. Chiarelli might have to make a deal to bring in a better No. 2 netminder.
BATTLE OF ALBERTA BLUES
No Andrei Sekera. No Larsson. No Talbot. No problem for the Oilers – at least on Saturday. Unlike some of their Pacific Division foes, specifically the Anaheim Ducks and the Oilers, the Flames have been relatively healthy so far this season. On Saturday, the Flames, who were without fourth-liner and first power-play man Kris Versteeg, failed to pick up any points in a game against an Oilers team without their No. 1 netminder and two of their top-three blueliners.
Going back to the start of last season, the Flames have lost six straight games against the Oilers, who seem to be in their heads. The Flames look tentative in games against Edmonton. Sure, Connor McDavid can do that to you, but unlike in Game 1 of their five-game season series when he scored all three goals in his team’s 3-0 win at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the Oilers’ Captain didn’t kill the Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday. McDavid had one assist in the Oilers win.
The Flames have to be more assertive early in games, especially in contests versus their provincial nemesis. Glen Gulutzan’s group tends to stick its toe in the water instead of diving in head-first, which explains why they’ve surrendered the first goal in 16 of their first 26 games. More often than not, the Flames respond to the way their opponent is playing as opposed to setting the tone and forcing their foes to come up with an answer. That has to change.
With his team trailing by four goals following 40 minutes, Gulutzan tried to spark the Flames by changing his goaltender, his forward lines and defence pairings. It almost worked. While it was far from Mike Smith’s best night, I don’t think he was replaced by David Rittich at the start of the third period based solely on his performance. Sure, Smith surrendered some goals that he’d probably like to have back – but he also made some incredible saves that kept the game close-ish.
While I’d definitely go back to Smith and probably reunite the top three forward lines for Monday’s game against the Flyers, I would think long and hard about changing the bottom two defence pairings. Dougie Hamilton had a really rough night – but I’d leave him with Mark Giordano. With the way things have gone so far this season, it might be time to split up the second pairing of Brodie and Travis Hamonic – at least for the time being. Brodie played really well with Michael Stone last season, so there’s no reason why that pairing wouldn’t work well again this year. Putting Hamonic on the third pairing with Brett Kulak could potentially give the Flames’ second and third pairings a bit more balance.
If that doesn’t work, they could always revert back to the three pairings that they’ve used for most of the season. While I believe Brodie and Hamonic could develop into a terrific second pairing for the Flames at some point, so far this season, they’ve struggled to look as good on the ice as they do on paper.
SILVER LINING SAM
If you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining in Saturday’s loss to the Oilers. His name is Sam Bennett. The highest draft pick in franchise history snapped an eight-game goalless streak with a pair of third period tallies. With his second and third goals of the season, Bennett stretched his season-long point streak to three games.
Gulutzan told me earlier this week that Bennett is having the second-best 10-game segment of his career, as far as scoring chances are concerned. Like most players, Bennett is a lot better when he’s playing with confidence – but for a player who prior to last season had never had a hard time producing points, it’s hard to play with confidence when your name rarely appears on the scoresheet. With five points in the last three games, Bennett is starting to play with some swagger, which is good news for him and the Flames and bad news for the other 30 NHL teams. When Bennett, Mark Jankowski and Jaromir Jagr are on, they make matching up with the Flames much more difficult.