Vintage Mike Smith not enough to halt Flames’ slide

James Reimer made 41 saves in regulation and overtime and managed to get two stops in the shootout for the Panthers to edge the Flames 3-2.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Mike Smith’s punch to the back of Jonathan Huberdeau’s head was a healthy sign he’d returned to form.

So were the 30 saves, which included five stunners in overtime.

Alas, a vintage outing by the 36-year-old netminder was squandered by a Flames team having trouble doing what it was so good at the first half of the season: finding ways to win.

This time it was a 3-2 shootout loss to the lowly Florida Panthers that has the former besties of the west dropping their fifth win in six outings since the prolonged all-star break.

It marked the first four-game slide of the season for the lads who still sit comfortably in second in the Pacific division.

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From afar, it would undoubtedly seem like the Flames are pulling the same sort of late-season slump that cost them a playoff spot last year.

But don’t tell that to anyone in the Flames dressing room, as they insist their body of work (outside of their loss in Tampa Tuesday) is only just a smidge off.

“We did a lot of good things tonight – there’s no sense in hanging our head leaving this building,” said Smith, which is an odd thing to say when leaving this hockey gong show and its 4,000 fans with anything less than a deuce.

“Even when we’re winning there’s always something people are (picking apart) and saying that isn’t true. “Obviously the results aren’t there. I think tonight was a lot better. You could tell guys were engaged in the game and winning battles. Unfortunately the puck didn’t go in tonight.”

James Reimer had a thing or two to do with that, stopping 41 shots that were sent by a mix of every single skater on the Flames roster.

Smith kept the Flames in a scoreless game until late in the second period when the Panthers got a lucky bounce off Evgenii Dadonov and in.

A Mark Jankowski rocket tied it early in the third before Mike Hoffman’s world-class wrister beat Smith glove side late.

For a Flames team desperately in search of some relief from a stretch they feared after the layoff, it set up a tense final flurry that saw Elias Lindholm restore some of that late Flames magic they’ve feasted on this year by redirecting a Rasmus Andersson point blast. His goal with two-and-a-half minutes left salvaged a point for a team trying hard to adjust to the annual tightening of a game as playoffs near.

Defensively, they were better all night, but Smith was still called upon to make huge saves in overtime, including two on Huberdeau, a wraparound by Derick Brassard and a beauty on Aleksander Barkov.

“I felt good – I felt like I was back to the swagger and compete level I needed to be,” said Smith whose ongoing confidence-building is well documented.

“It hasn’t been there for stints this year but I felt like tonight it was time to wake up and smell the coffee and go after it, so I kind of played loose and free and tried to make the big saves there.”

He sure did, including a shootout stop on Huberdeau that ended with him on top of the big goalie. It earned the Panthers star a blocker to the head as part of the general feistiness Smith exhibits when he’s in the groove.

A very positive sign in a rough patch the Flames now have to try battling out of in Pittsburgh Saturday to wrap up a four-game road swing that they have gone 0-1-2 on so far.

Although Sean Monahan scored on the first shootout attempt, Smith was beaten by Barkov and Vincent Trochek to clinch a win that saw surprise shootout participant Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Tkachuk thwarted.

The Flames, who rarely practice penalty shots, are now 0-for-9 in shootouts, dating back to November 2017.

Players have used the word slide and slump to describe their recent string of setbacks, which Tkachuk didn’t agree with.

“No, I mean, we haven’t played to our potential but tonight we could have easily grabbed the two points, so I don’t really look at it like that,” said Tkachuk, who is pointless in seven games.

“We’ve just got to find a way to start winning again. We did a good job eliminating chances, but we didn’t do a good enough job creating.”

Truth be told the Flames have deserved a better fate several times of late, which only serves to balance out the fact they won many games earlier this year they didn’t necessarily deserve.

“Early on in the season those were going in for us and now it’s a little harder,” said Smith, who likely earned the start Saturday afternoon against the Pens.

“That’s how it’s going to be from now on and we have to understand that.

“We had a good talk after last game and realized we can’t play like we did against Tampa and be in any hockey games. The battle level was there and there were a lot of good things tonight.”

One of the bad things was a second period injury to James Neal that ended his night and leaves his playing status up in the air due to an upper body ailment following an awkward collision with Jayce Hawryluk.

Coach Bill Peters didn’t have an update on the extent of the winger’s injury but he was seen walking out of the arena in his suit after the game with no visible sign of injury.

“We did a good job staying with it and coming back twice,” said the skipper.

“It’s a fine line this time of year – they got two goals after we iced it and has fresh guys against tired guys. Details matter, especially this time of year.

“We’ve got another level we can get back to. I don’t think we’re all dialed in. There’s room to grow here.”

NOTE: The game started with a moment of silence in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland where 17 people were killed.

Roberto Luongo, whose kids attend the school, wore a mask in the pregame skate in honour of the victims who will be named to the team’s Den of Honour before Sunday’s game against Montreal.

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