The Calgary Flames clinched a playoff spot a week ago and look to have sewn up the top spot in the Western Conference with their win over the Canucks on Saturday night. They look poised to make a deep playoff run after missing the playoffs in seven of their last nine seasons.
They have incredible depth at forward, led by an elite talent in Johnny Gaudreau: they have three played with 30+ goals and eight forwards in the double digits, but they get contributions throughout their lineup. For instance, all three of the Flames’ goals against the Canucks on Saturday came from the fourth line.
They also have a talented defence corps. Mark Giordano is a favourite for the Norris Trophy, but T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic round out a very solid top four.
When you look at their forwards and defence, it’s easy to see the Flames as a powerhouse Stanley Cup contender. Just don’t let your eyes stray too far towards the net at their end of the ice. If you do, you’ll see a conundrum in the crease. A riddle in the middle (of the net), if you will. Or, perhaps, a hole-y in the goalie.
The incumbent starter is experienced veteran Mike Smith, who has been to the NHL playoffs just once as a starter. He was fantastic in that one visit, posting a .944 save percentage in 16 starts for the Phoenix Coyotes, but that was seven years ago.
This season, Smith has been erratic, with an .899 save percentage that ranks 44th among the 51 goaltenders that have played at least 25 games. The Flames have frequently needed to score their way out of trouble with Smith in net and, fortunately for them, they’ve been able to do so.
Their other option is David Rittich, a 26-year-old that had played all of 22 games heading into this season. Rittich has been legitimately good or, at the very least, league average: his .911 save percentage is 24th among that same group of 51 goaltenders. He’s never played in the NHL playoffs, however, and he’s faltered over the last couple months: he has an .894 save percentage in February and March.
That’s the biggest question for the Flames heading into the playoffs: can either of their goaltenders step up? They can’t keep outscoring their goaltending issues, because they will be facing teams that are just as sound defensively and potent offensively as they are.
Unfortunately, the Canucks definitely weren’t as sound defensively and potent offensively as the Flames when I watched this game.
- With one minor exception, Jacob Markstrom was money all night. He had to be to keep the Canucks in the game in the first period in particular, as the Flames out-shot the Canucks 12-6 in the opening frame. The Canucks got their chances, but the Flames controlled possession and forced Markstrom, like an ice road trucker, to make some tough, sliding stops.
- The Flames got to Markstrom halfway through the period, however, thanks to some fire drill defence from the Canucks. Everything went wrong: the Canucks’ skaters could have been doing the interpretive dance from The OA and accomplished just as much.
- Off a faceoff loss, Guillaume Brisebois ended up chasing his man all the way to the point instead of passing him off to Bo Horvat, who also jumped up to cover him as he got the puck. That immediately created a problem, as Derek Ryan also got inside position on Tyler Motte and had an open lane to the net. Markstrom had to expect a shot from Ryan, which left the backdoor wide open for Mark Giordano as he jumped up past a completely lost Jay Beagle. To Brisebois’ credit, he did everything he could to get back in the play, diving out to get his stick in the shooting lane, but only ended up with a busted twig to go with the busted play.
- Alex Biega continued to impress, playing in a shutdown role with Alex Edler against the Flames’ top line. He hasn’t always excelled in that role, but was solid against Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan, who had a combined four shots on goal. Biega even had the Canucks’ best chance in the first period, jumping up with Jay Beagle for a shorthanded 2-on-1 and forcing a tough glove save.
- Gaudreau was held off the scoresheet and was also frustrated by a hit from Bo Horvat midway through the second period, which he was steamed about for the rest of the game. He clearly thought Horvat had done something untoward; what actually happened is Gaudreau’s own stick him him in the chin. Horvat’s hit was completely clean. Gaudreau’s stick, on the other hand, should be suspended for a hit to the head.
- Markstrom’s one whiff came late in the second period. A Luke Schenn stretch pass got picked off in the neutral zone and the Flames attacked with numbers. Brock Boeser got back to deflect a centring pass, but Brisebois was unable to get to the bouncing puck before Garnet Hathaway, who sent a backhand towards the net. Like Dane Cook, his shot was a waffler, and it seemed to dip right under Markstrom’s blocker.
- After a frustrated Gaudreau slewfooted Jake Virtanen, the Canucks’ suddenly super-efficient power play went to work. A couple games ago, they needed just four seconds to score on the power play; on Saturday, they needed a whopping nine seconds. Horvat won the faceoff, Pettersson swung the puck up to Edler, and Boeser rotated to the point to take Edler’s drop pass. Before Canucks fans had time to cringe at the phrase “Edler’s drop pass,” Boeser ripped a wrist shot that deflected off Mark Jankowski and knuckled past Smith.
- Schenn had a monstrous hit on Hathaway in the third period that led colour commentator Louie DeBrusk to describe the two players as, “Two guys that like to bang.” Phrasing!
- The Flames’ third goal was another disasterpiece of defending. Virtanen’s flyby on Giordano was unbelievable: instead of staying in Giordano’s lane and making a hit, Virtanen gambled on intercepting a cross-ice pass that never came. Giordano then stepped up the boards and sent a pass between Brisebois and Adam Gaudette who were in no man’s land, setting up Andrew “Bread Eater” Mangiapane for a wide open one-timer from between the hashmarks.
- There were other issues on that goal, but Virtanen’s flyby was the most frustrating. He’s been billed as a physical power forward, so it’s tough to see him pass up an opportunity to play the body. That was a “We all have to work in the morning” flyby you’d see at drop-in hockey at Twin Rinks.
- As you might surmise from Brisebois being mentioned in every goal against, he didn’t have a great game. Shot attempts were 12-2 for the Flames when Brisebois was on the ice at 5-on-5, easily the worst on the Canucks. His ice time was limited to begin with, but he got benched after the third goal against, playing just one more shift for the rest of the game. It’s enough to make you wonder if Josh Teves will make his Canucks debut on Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
- Like between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, there was some bad blood in this game, the most hilarious being the history between Alex Edler and Mike Smith. Back in 2013, Edler ran right over Smith when he went behind the net to play the puck. He actually received a two-game suspension for the hit. I don’t know if that was in Smith’s head when Edler once again approached on the forecheck, but the force with which Smith threw himself away from Edler suggests he was desperate to avoid another collision. Either that or he was taking a massive dive to draw a penalty.
- I’ll avoid passing judgement on whether or not Smith took a dive, but only because Markstrom already passed judgement for me, smiling down the ice at Smith and making a clear diving motion.
- Finally, there was a scary moment late in the third period when Troy Stecher laid out to block a shot from Elias Lindholm. The Flames’ centre delayed with the puck as Stecher slid across his shooting lane before sending the puck directly into Stecher’s face. He went off the ice under his own power and appeared to be all right, even making his planned appearance on After Hours with Scott Oake.
- "Teeth are still there, nose is intact, so we're good to go," said Stecher on After Hours, looking smart in a three-piece suit. He also added that his mom is a dental assistant, so she might have been extra worried about the teeth.