For the second time in about a week, the Flames pointed out that they had yet to learn from the lessons brought to them by the adversity they had faced.
Michael Stone briefly mentioned that his team needed to “start learning” from what they were doing wrong following a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. But this past Wednesday, his fellow defenceman MacKenzie Weegar was a bit more direct. He started talking about how his team had obtained chances on the offensive side and had to find ways to capitalize on them before broadening his scope.
“We’ve been talking about a few things for quite a while,” Weegar said last week. “I think it’s time we actually do them and we stop talking about them.”
The Flames have not been able to apply whatever concepts or habits they’ve discussed since those comments and are now in the midst of a five-game winless skid. Despite the Flames not looking like the playoff contender many pegged them to be at the beginning of the year, however, they are still in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Here is a giant silver lining for those who like to look at a glass and say it’s half-full: According to Tankathon, they have the easiest strength of schedule among all NHL teams. They have yet to play against lowly teams like San Jose, Chicago and Anaheim. On paper, they should beat them.
Here is something for those who look at that same glass and bark back at it being half-empty: The Flames have yet to show they can dominate teams that were either projected to be below them (teams like Seattle come to mind) and basement-dwellers like the Columbus Blue Jackets. Calgary holds a 5-6-2 record against teams currently outside the playoff picture. If you account for the bottom 16 teams we projected in our early-season rankings, the Flames have a record of 2-6-4. Not good.
The Flames will play Pacific Division opponents exclusively from here on out until the end of the month, including a four-game California road trip that begins Sunday. With the exception of Edmonton and Seattle, the Flames will play teams that are presently outside of the playoffs. Calgary’s upcoming slate of games will be crucial for them to rack up points and stay in the fight for a playoff spot of their own.
“Those are really important games,” Flames forward Dillon Dube said on Friday. “They’re huge points for us. They can push teams down and get ourselves into a spot where we need to be. When we’re playing Eastern teams, it’s harder to gain ground on teams if they’re winning as well in our conference. It’s important that we play well in those games and we get the points when we need to.”
The Flames will need to score goals in all situations, be more disciplined, and play cleanly with fewer turnovers. But that’s something to be said for every game they play, especially from here on out. We’ve decided to take a deeper look into the Flames’ next few opponents and unearth some major keys they’ll need to remember if they want to pick up points in winnable games.
San Jose Sharks
Both teams are not among the league’s best when it comes to finishing their chances at five-on-five and need help from their goaltending to keep them in games, but it’s the Sharks who have more goals (in all situations) than the Flames. The Sharks also boast a better power play and a top-three penalty kill which shows that their five-on-five play is a huge reason why their team is outside the playoff picture.
Calgary can at least boast they have better goaltending as Kaapo Kahkonen is ranked among the league’s worst when you account for goals saved above expected. Better yet, if you look through that list of goaltenders, you’ll find a handful of them that the Flames could encounter on their road trip. The Flames’ ability to limit shots should also help against a team that seemingly struggles to get goals in high-danger areas.
With two matchups against the Sharks coming up, it’s possible that Jacob Markstrom’s between the pipes for at least one. So if he can stand tall against a team that struggles to finish their chances, that could help rebuild his confidence. That net-front area where the Sharks aren’t finishing their chances as often as they should, and that’s where the Flames have been coming up with more saves above expected.
Flames fans may also want to watch intently as they’ll square off against a “dream” trade deadline target in Timo Meier, who can produce on the man advantage and enter the zone effectively. The Flames would obviously have to clear some salary to make an acquisition work but his status as an impending unrestricted free agent should lessen the cost. But they certainly wouldn’t be alone in vying for his services.
The Flames’ penalty kill and goaltending will need to be solid against the Sharks. If the Flames are capable of keeping the game at five-on-five and limiting their penalties — something they weren’t able to do on their previous road trip — it will go a long way to them finding success.
The Ducks are dead last in points, goals per game, own the third-worst power play in the league and have the league’s worst penalty kill. Anaheim is also last in expected goals against at five-on-five with 3.47 per 60. They bleed shots right in the net area — where the Flames don’t go often enough. That must change against every team but certainly against the Ducks. But it will be difficult to do as the Flames lack a player who can consistently drive the net, leading to a lot of shots taken from the point and from the hash marks.
Maybe there’s more of an opening against Anaheim, who have left their goaltenders so exposed that it’s tricky for anyone to manage that workload. The wild card is Lukas Dostal, if he’s in net. He’s coming off a win over Edmonton where he saved 2.99 goals above expected.
The Flames have also had their issues with younger rosters that flash speed and skill, which means they will need to be good defensively against the likes of Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. If they suppress oncoming chances and take away the middle of the ice, as they’ve shown that they can, they can pick up points easily against the Ducks. This is a game that the Flames should, on paper, dominate in all phases.
If the Flames fail to defeat the Ducks, however, it could mark a massive change in perception of the Flames and their playoff ambitions. Yes, any team can win or lose on any given day and their season will not immediately end after a loss. Even the Flames’ provincial rival struggled against them Saturday. But it will be difficult to give the Flames the benefit of the doubt about them being a playoff contender considering the sample size given through this point of the season.
The Flames will face off against a Kings team that is struggling big time in goal between their three netminders, Jonathan Quick, Cal Petersen and Pheonix Copley. The Kings also have the worst collective goals saved above expected in the league, as they’ve allowed 22.7 more than expected based on their workload. If the Flames are advantageous enough, it should be a good opportunity for the Flames to finish off their chances.
Once again, the Flames will need to establish themselves in front of goal — and the challenge will be permeating that area of the ice, when Los Angeles does a fine job defending the slot at five-on-five. On the flip side, the Kings have shown that they have no problem taking shots as far from the net as possible in spite of their below-average goaltending.
Through the California portion of this road trip, it is clear that the Flames need somebody who can drive to the net, or at least make plays happen from the goal line.
When the Flames matched up against the Toronto Maple Leafs last weekend, it took them all of three seconds in the overtime period to get into penalty trouble. Mitch Marner ended the game on a power-play goal, the team’s third of the night, and Scotiabank Arena fans went home happy. If the Flames want to avoid a similar fate against the Oilers, a team they’ll have already faced off against twice that presently has the league’s best power play, they need to stay out of the box.
But if they do find themselves on the penalty kill, they need to take away passing lanes and press defencemen at the line. The Ducks got a goal in their 4-3 win over the Oilers on Saturday off an Evan Bouchard turnover at the line, leading to a breakaway goal from Ryan Strome. The Flames got a short-handed goal of their own against the Oilers the last time these two teams faced off in a similar fashion. Blake Coleman forced a turnover at the blue line and Mikael Backlund used his speed to get the puck and score.
That just emphasizes the need for Calgary to keep playing to their strengths of spotting those trigger points and exploiting them, because Edmonton is one of the more lethal teams on the advantage with all of their star power.
To make matters worse for the Oilers, Edmonton’s expected goals against on their own penalty kill was the fourth worst in the league, at 9.92 per 60, prior to their matchup against the Ducks. And their actual goals against isn’t much better (8th ranking at 10.3 goals against per 60). The Oilers give up shots from the point, but also give up a lot near the net. The Flames’ power play, which is below average in expected-goal creation, will be relied upon to produce. But that might mean figuring out who will be the ideal net-front presence to get shots off, whether it be Huberdeau, Toffoli, or someone else. The Flames should be more selfish and shoot.
Considering that Calgary’s rate of drawn penalties at five-on-five is the fourth best in the league, there should be a lot of opportunity to create scoring chances whenever the Oilers are short-handed.
The toughest team to figure out might be the Seattle Kraken. It’s not something we would’ve anticipated writing at the beginning of the season, let alone this exercise. The Kraken don’t have many stars beyond a budding one in Matty Beniers, but they have some balance up and down the lineup. Their power play, ranked 15th, is middle of the pack yet they aren’t the best at creating scoring chances and have a low rate of expected goals. The Flames should have defeated them the last time they played, as they looked better at five-on-five and emerged with more quality chances. But many of their attempts were blocked as the Kraken tried their best to shut the Flames down defensively.
Some of the Flames’ best offensive talents had good performances against the Kraken. Nazem Kadri scored a goal by driving to the net. Elias Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli, who are still on a line together, both produced points at five-on-five. The Flames had a line of Backlund, Coleman and Dube that night, and they emerged with nearly a third of the Flames’ 10 high-danger chances.
The Flames know they can hang with the Kraken, it’s just a matter of maintaining focus and not easing off the gas pedal as they did when they blew a lead at home.
If this game is about momentum swings once again, the Flames are going to need more of their own this time. Perhaps they can find ways to quiet the Kraken by taking advantage of their lacklustre power play. Seattle’s exceeded expectations on the power play, but really isn’t generating a high rate of shots or scoring chances. So, if Calgary can play to their short-handed strengths to take the wind out of their five-on-four play, it could be a difference-maker.
The Flames had their chances in front of the Canucks when they played last week, which was to be expected from an opponent with a shaky defence that allows a high rate of chances from that area and the slot. The Canucks, however, were also capable of taking advantage of the Flames’ net front in that game. If it plays out similarly to that last encounter, Chris Tanev’s absence from the lineup (if he somehow isn’t available by then) could hurt more than other games.
A key is finding a way to limit Bo Horvat from creating shots from that net-front area. He’s picked up his shot generation, but even more so, has improved where he’s shooting the puck this season. With more tips and deflections, goaltenders are having more trouble stopping his hot streak. During their last matchup, the Flames stacked their best shutdown centre against Horvat in Mikael Backlund.
Generally, the elite defensive centre does well to shut down his opponents. But Horvat and the Canucks got the best of Backlund and the Flames in their head-to-head minutes. That’s a matchup Calgary needs to win next time around.
Data collected prior to Saturday night’s matchups, via Evolving-Hockey, HockeyViz, MoneyPuck, and NaturalStatTrick. This story relies on shot-based metrics; here is a primer on these numbers.
(Top photo: Perry Nelson / USA Today)