CALGARY — The Flames knew what they had in their $36 million dollar netminder Jacob Markstrom, even when he wasn’t playing his best. The team has done what it can to help him gain his confidence back, and his recent performances have paid them in kind. So, Dillon Dube has a point when he feels the discourse surrounding him should be grounded to a halt.
“I think we’re beating it to death, to be honest,” Dube said Wednesday after a loss to the Vancouver Canucks. “He’s a great goalie. Everyone in this room knows what a great goalie he is, especially what he’s done in this league, so I don’t really think there should be any questions about him anymore.”
The Flames’ goaltending seems to be in a much better place than it was a few weeks ago. But Markstrom’s, and even Dan Vladar’s, performances will ultimately go in vain if the team in front of them cannot score. Markstrom, alone, cannot be faulted for the 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday, a loss that prompted a few boos from the Saddledome seats as the final horn sounded.
That blame should go to everyone else in front of him.
“The whole game was just very sloppy from our side,” Flames centre Elias Lindholm said. “We left Marky out to dry out there. A lot of two-on-ones, a lot of odd-man rushes (allowed). You’re not going to win many games in this league playing like that.”
There is every reason to apply pressure to the Flames’ offence and how it is constructed. Through 31 games, the Flames just aren’t reliable enough to be counted on for big scoring games and they know their identity stems from keeping other teams’ chances at a minimum and not giving up goals. Yes, the Flames are built well up the middle and have offensive pieces like Jonathan Huberdeau, Andrew Mangiapane and even Dillon Dube on the flanks, but they still need another offensive weapon who can help with their efforts.
Even then, in the name of “production,” Flames head coach Darryl Sutter is still tinkering with his lineup to get it. He moved Dube onto a line with Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli and put Huberdeau alongside Nazem Kadri and Mangiapane once again. Dube got two assists, but Huberdeau was held to one shot on goal — amidst the Flames’ 43 they fired onto Blues’ goalie Thomas Greiss.
“It’s good to get on the board but I’d rather take the two points.”
Connor Mackey shares his thoughts on the loss to the Blues. pic.twitter.com/n1cXANE0DX
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) December 17, 2022
“You need guys to be game breakers,” Sutter Friday morning. “Guys who can score the big goal.”
“Once in a while,” as Flames forward Mikael Backlund said, they will get a big win and get goals. But it is quite the change from last year when they had two game-breaking players who could be counted on for offensive zone possession and goals while boasting the best first line in the league.
“I don’t like to compare last year to this year. I mean we swapped out some big names,” Backlund said. “It’s a big change up. It’s a process. This year we’re losing guys and we’re bringing new guys for sure.”
It won’t be long before more fans wonder what the Flames can even do to obtain a high-scoring piece available ahead of the trade deadline in March. There are no shortage of options available, but the Flames lack draft capital and cap space to make it work.
Calgary’s latest stretch of play has seen it fail to dominate teams like Columbus, Vancouver, Montreal and now St. Louis, who entered Friday’s game with the worst penalty kill in the league. The Flames have had 20 power-play opportunities across their last five games with only three goals to show for it. During the second period, the Flames were given three chances to score with the man advantage — including a brief five-on-three — yet only mustered six shots and one high-danger chance throughout the entire period.
“I think, honestly, we’ve got to get back to the way we played a couple of games ago,” Lindholm said. “Just keep it simple. Find an open guy, put lots of pucks to the net. Just go back to the basics and keep it simple. I think, now, we’re trying too much and it just doesn’t work.”
The Flames found themselves down 2-1 entering the third but lacked urgency for most of it, resulting in three goals allowed including daggers from Brandon Saad and Jordan Kyrou scoring within 61 seconds of each other.
“I think that’s kind of where you start to feel it’s a big mountain to climb,” Backlund said. “It’s a tough loss.”
The Flames couldn’t even celebrate Connor Mackey’s first-ever two-goal night in the NHL, a big night for a seventh defenceman who could use as much confidence as he can get. Of course, Mackey lost the puck on the eventual dagger — an unassisted Saad goal — that put the game out of reach and blew out whatever hope remained for a Flames comeback win.
“It was good to get on the board, but I’d rather take the two points,” Mackey said.
As a result, the Flames are on a five-game winless streak with a four-game road trip in California looming large. It is a crucial point in their year for their reputation, but they are only a handful of points back from being among the top three teams in their division and remain tied for the second and final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
A successful road trip will have them back in good graces, but a less-than-ideal time will only ramp up the potential criticism and intensify pressure that could be thrown the organization’s way.
“We got to go in with the mindset here that we need a really, really big road trip here,” Backlund said. “Set ourselves up to be in a playoff spot before Christmas. That’s our goal going into this road trip. We know we can be better, we know we have to be better.”
(Photo of Jonathan Huberdeau: Sergei Belski / USA Today)