The New York Islanders snapped their season-long eight-game losing streak and also ended the Flames’ two-game winning and three-game point streaks with a 5-2 victory at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Sunday. Here are some thoughts from the game.
Exactly one month after suffering a lower-body injury with 1.1 seconds left in his team’s 3-2 win in Brooklyn on Feb. 11, Mike Smith returned to the Flames’ lineup for Sunday’s game against the Islanders. While the 35-year-old looked a little rusty both stopping and playing the puck in the first period, he looked way more comfortable and confident in the second and third periods.
Even though he wasn’t at his best in the first 20 minutes, with his team trailing by two and then three goals and taking some chances defensively to generate shots and create scoring chances offensively, Smith made a number of big saves in the last 40 minutes to give the Flames a chance. After going 5-6-2 in 13 games without their all-star goaltender, I like the Flames’ chances way better with Smith than without him.
For some unexplainable reason, the Flames tend to start slower at home than they do on the road. Even though they fell behind 2-0 just 3:05 into last Monday’s game in Pittsburgh, I thought the Flames were by far the better of the two teams in the first period of that game. Eventually, they battled back to tie the game at two in the first and at three in the second and picked up an important point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins.
Last Wednesday, the Flames were dominant from start to finish in Buffalo, where they led 2-0 through 20 minutes and 5-0 following 40 minutes en route to a 5-1 victory over the Sabres. The Flames had another strong start versus the Senators in Ottawa last Friday, when they scored one in the first and another in the third to take a 2-0 lead in a game that they’d go on to win 2-1.
Early in Sunday’s game, the Flames looked looser defensively and did not appear to be playing with the same level of urgency that they did during their three-game road trip. On the road, the Flames usually dive head-first into the proverbial pool. At home, more often than not, they stick their toe into the water to check the temperature before finally cannonballing into the water out of necessity because they’ve fallen behind. With seven of their final 12 regular-season games at home, the Flames are going to have to find a way to win at Scotiabank Saddledome, where they’re 2-5-4 in their last 11 games and 14-16-4 so far this season.
NEED A LITTLE PUCK LUCK
In their last two home games, the Flames have a whopping 103 shots on goal. On March 2, they fired a season-high 51 shots at Henrik Lundqvist in a 3-1 loss to the Rangers. Not surprisingly, Lundqvist was the first star. On Sunday, Christopher Gibson, playing in just his third NHL game this season and the seventh of his career, stopped 50 of the Flames’ season-high 52 shots and was the first star in a 5-2 Islanders win.
To make matters worse, the Flames had a season-high 94 shot attempts on Sunday, missing the net 22 times while the Islanders paid the price by blocking 20 shots. While the Flames weren’t at their best on Sunday, their luck couldn’t have been much worse. Calgary probably wouldn’t have needed as much puck luck if it hadn’t fallen behind by two goals before the three-minute mark and again before the 11-minute mark. If the Flames play with urgency in the first period of Tuesday’s game against the Oilers as they did in the third period of Sunday’s contest versus the Islanders, I like their chances.
Even when he’s not scoring goals and producing points, Matthew Tkachuk is one of the Flames’ most important players. After being held off the scoresheet Sunday, Tkachuk is pointless in four games and goalless in eight. With that said, the sophomore’s recent lack of production is certainly not for a lack of trying. For the seventh time this season, the 20-year-old played more than 20 minutes and did so despite not playing in the final five-plus minutes of the third period after leaving the game after falling over the back of Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal and hitting his head on the boards.
Even though he didn’t get rewarded statistically, Tkachuk was once again a beast versus the Islanders, constantly going to the tough areas and making life difficult for his opponents. As much as the Flames couldn’t afford to lose Sunday’s game, they really cant afford to lose Tkachuk for any games down the stretch. In my opinion, super-talented super pest is as important as any skater on the team. Fingers crossed he’ll be back for Tuesday’s Battle of Alberta versus the Oilers.