Down Goes Brown Weekend Wrap: Can flatlining Flames recover?

Mike Smith talked about the Flames not putting in the proper work to start a game and how they can turn things around.

Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.

Opening faceoff: Round and round we go

The NHL played some games this weekend, so needless to say we’re all angry about goaltender-interference reviews.

That’s been a recurring theme through most of the second half (as opposed to the first half, when we were all angry about offside reviews). The latest chapter came on Saturday in Toronto, when a controversial interference call may have cost the Penguins the game. With the Leafs leading 3–0, Brian Dumoulin appeared to cut the lead to 3–1. But referee Dan O’Halloran ruled that Dumoulin had interfered with Frederik Andersen and awarded a minor penalty, wiping out the goal and sending the Leafs to the power play. Toronto scored to make it 4–0, then held on to take a 5–2 final.

Saturday’s controversy didn’t actually involve a review, which is part of the problem. If a referee simply waves off a goal, the play can be challenged, but if a penalty is issued then there’s no review allowed. So the Penguins were out of luck, even as replays showed that the contact was minimal and that Dumoulin may have been directed into the crease by Ron Hainsey. Would a review have resulted in the call being overturned? Probably not, but we didn’t get a chance to find out.

It’s the latest flare-up in the never-ending interference debate, and having this one come on a Hockey Night in Canada game between two high-profile teams ensured that everyone would be weighing in. It comes just a few days after another controversy that also featured the Leafs, when a Sabres goal following what appeared to be far more blatant interference on Andersen was allowed to stand on Monday.

That had Mike Babcock ominously warning that when it came to interference, the league “better get it solved” before the playoffs. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan largely echoed that sentiment on Saturday. Everyone seems to agree that this is a mess, and that the league needs to fix it.

Except for one problem: They can’t. There is no fix, because these calls are largely subjective. You can tweak the rules and interpretations and where the line is drawn as much as you want, but you’re never going to get anywhere close to a situation where everyone is on the same page.

Instead, it’s becoming clear that the league made a major mistake by making goaltender interference subject to replay review in the first place. There’s a reason why pro sports leagues have traditionally limited replay review to calls that should be black and white, and leave the judgment calls to the officials in real time. We’re seeing it now.

You could make the case that both of this week’s Maple Leafs calls were correct based on the rulebook. The Buffalo goal came on contact just outside the crease, while Dumoulin’s lighter nudge was clearly in the blue paint, so the rules for the two plays work differently. Years ago, fans may have simply shrugged off the two calls as the sort of grey-area decisions that can go either way in a specific game but tend to even out over the course of a season. But not anymore, because by subjecting interference calls to review in the name of “getting it right,” the NHL raised the bar. Now, fans expect a level of consistency that we don’t see on any other judgment calls. When a referee makes a subjective call we don’t like for holding, or roughing, or cross-checking, we complain a little here and there and then get on with our lives. But with interference, we’ve been trained to break every play down frame-by-frame, searching for an obvious answer that just isn’t there.

You want to solve this? Get rid of interference review entirely and jut let the referees do their job. Will there still be controversial calls? Of course. Will there be calls that are outright wrong? Sure, sometimes. That’s life in pro sports. We used to be able to live with it. Now we have a system that’s slow and confusing, and nobody is the slightest bit happier about the calls it’s churning out. So get rid of it. Ride out the season, pray to the hockey gods that we don’t see a playoff series ruined by one of these things, and then scrap the review altogether in the off-season.

Instead, the NHL has apparently decided to respond to the problem by telling everyone to stop complaining. Good luck with that, guys.

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Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (44-19-5, +46 true goals differential*): Vegas flu advisory; after tonight’s game in Philadelphia, they’re home for eight of the next 10.

4. Boston Bruins (43-16-8, +53): Brad Marchand missed yesterday’s game with an injury, but escaped any supplemental discipline for this collision with Anthony Duclair.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-26-4, +18): Evgeni Malkin had two more points in last night’s win over the Stars, and now has 51 in his last 30 games to move to within one of Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross race.

2. Nashville Predators (44-14-10, +50): Tomorrow night brings another showdown with the Jets, where a Nashville win all but ends the race for top spot in the Central.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (48-17-4, +58): The Predators and Lightning are turning this into a two-team race, with both teams taking 19 of 20 points in their last 10.

(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)

There’s really no nice way to say it: Last night was a disaster for the Calgary Flames.

We covered their fading playoff hopes last week, as they’d dropped four points back of the wild-card race. But the schedule served up some hope with a week’s worth of easy matchups, and the Flames took advantage by banking road wins against the Sabres and Senators. Last night seemed like more of the same, as the Islanders arrived in town riding an eight-game losing streak.

Instead, the Flames ended up dropping a 5–2 decision, leaving two crucial points on the table. To make matters worse, last night’s effort wasted the return of Mike Smith, who was making his first start since injuring his groin exactly a month ago against these same Islanders. If anything should have provided an emotional boost to a team that could use one, you’d think Smith’s return would do the trick, especially with the Islanders starting Chris Gibson, a guy with six career appearances to his name. Instead, the Flames came out flat and trailed 2–0 before the game was even three minutes old.

After that rough start, the Flames were actually the better team for most of the night. They had 52 shots on goal, and nearly as many that went wide. They dominated possession, and had the better chances. None of it mattered.

So sure, the Flames deserved a better fate. But this deep into the season, that hardly matters. There’s no such thing as an easy two points in today’s NHL, but when you’re life and death to make the playoffs, you’ve got to be able to find a point or two against a team that’s dropped eight straight. The Flames couldn’t do it, and the results could be disastrous — by one estimate, that single loss dropped their already-shrinking playoff hopes by more than 11 percent.

The good news is that the Stars lost in regulation, too, so there are still four teams holding down playoff spots within four points of the Flames, and only the Kings to leapfrog to get to them. But all of those teams hold two games in hand except for the Ducks, who hold one, so there’s more ground to make up than it looks like. The Flames’ remaining schedule still features two games against the Sharks and one against the Ducks, so they have some control over their fate. And it also includes two each against the Oilers and Coyotes, which should be very winnable games against teams without much to play for.

Then again, winnable games don’t count for much until you win them. The Islanders reminded us of that fact last night. The Flames can’t afford many more lessons the rest of the way.

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Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.

5. Detroit Red Wings (26-31-11, -32): Make it six straight losses, as the Wings make a late charge for the bottom.

4. Vancouver Canucks (25-35-9, -39): With Brock Boeser out, there isn’t much left on the current roster for fans to get excited about. But headlines like this have to help a little.

3. Ottawa Senators (23-33-11, -47): Mark Stone is out after suffering a leg injury against the Flames, and could miss significant time.

2. Arizona Coyotes (22-35-11, -53): After a relatively quiet year, we could be on the verge of some new off-ice drama in Arizona, as Andrew Barroway reportedly explores the possibility of adding investors as the team gears up for an arena fight.

1. Buffalo Sabres (22-35-12, -58): After hanging tough against the Knights, they’re off until Thursday, when they kick off a five-game homestand by hosting the Maple Leafs.

The New Jersey Devils have been one of the league’s best stories. All but written off before the season even began, they charged out to a 9-2-0 start and have stubbornly hung around the playoff picture ever since. Recently, Taylor Hall‘s scoring streak pushed him into the crowded Hart Trophy conversation, and first-overall pick Nico Hischier looks like the real deal. For a team that finished dead last in the East just a year ago, missing the playoffs by 25 points in the process, their post-season push has capped off what’s been close to a dream season.

There’s just one problem: They may not make it after all.

Lost in the hype around Hall’s scoring streak was the fact that it wasn’t translating into all that many Devils wins. Since the new year, the Devils have gone just 13-16-2, one of the worst records in the league. To put their slump in perspective, their 28 points in 2018 matches the Sabres and trails the Coyotes.

All of that leant a sense of urgency to Saturday’s matchup in Nashville, as the Devils faced the hottest team in the league. The Predators came in riding a ten-game win streak, and they took the lead just a minute into the game. But goals by Sami Vatanen and Brian Boyle gave the Devils a 2–1 lead heading into the third, and while Ryan Johansen tied it with a minute left, New Jersey managed to escape with a shootout win.

Those two points could be huge, and at least temporarily slipped New Jersey back into the East’s first wild-card spot, with a three-point cushion over the Panthers. But Florida holds three games in hand and the ROW tie-breaker, so the Devils’ position is still tenuous.

That game kicked off a brutal road trip that sees them head to Vegas next, then complete the dreaded three-game California swing and stop in Pittsburgh before they return home, where the Lightning will be waiting for them. It’s not hard to imagine them getting to the end of that stretch and not just being outside the playoff race, but having been left behind entirely.

Or maybe not – with the Islanders imploding and the Hurricanes wobbling, it’s looking like the Devils will need to fend off only one of the Panthers or Blue Jackets to earn a spot. And of course, even a near-miss would still ultimately feel like a win for a team resetting expectations. And as an added bonus, a miss would get them into the lottery, which they’d be guaranteed to win because they have Mr. Lottery on the roster.

So maybe it’s a no-lose situation for this team. But it won’t feel that way if they miss the playoffs after being in the hunt all season long. They’re certainly headed in that direction, and the schedule isn’t doing them any favours. If they can hold on the rest of the way, they’ll have earned it.

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Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league

• More bad news for the Flames: they lost Matthew Tkachuk late in last night’s loss after he went hard into the boards. There’s no word yet on how much time he might miss, if any.

• Just in case we were getting a little caught up on all this complaining about goalie interference calls, last night’s Penguins/Stars game provided a nice reminder that offside review is also still terrible.

Saturday’s win was a franchise-record 10th straight at home for the Maple Leafs.

• The Blue Jackets are hanging tough in the last Eastern wild-card spot thanks to four straight wins. They’ll try to make it five when they host the Canadiens tonight. Montreal has lost four straight.

• It’s easy enough to forget given their apparent trade-deadline surrender, but the Blues are still hanging around the Western race. After smoking the Kings 7-2 on Saturday, they’re just three points back of a wild card. That was only their second win in their last 11, but with games against the Ducks and Avs this week, they’re still in this thing.

• Henrik Lundqvist reached the 800-game milestone in Saturday’s shootout loss to the Panthers. He’s the first European goaltender to reach the mark.

• The Jets suffered the first loss of their road trip on Saturday, dropping a 2–1 decision to the Flyers. Patrik Laine scored his 40th in a losing cause to move into a tie with Alex Ovechkin in the goal-scoring race.

• The Oilers’ win over the Wild was their third straight. Oddly, that makes them the only team in the conference riding a streak of either kind longer than two games.

• Things got heated between the Avalanche and Coyotes on Saturday, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson of all people getting it started.

• Finally, we had a goalie goal in the AHL, where Charlotte’s Alex Nedeljkovic buried one in a 7–3 win. Consider that the first bit of good news the Hurricanes organization has had from one of its goalies all year.

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