Flames Risk Playoff Positioning if Road Trip Woes Continue
The Calgary Flames are on a five-game road trip with games against the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, and Nashville Predators, which could prove to be a turning point in their season. After a gut-wrenching overtime loss (4-3) to the Blackhawks to open the road trip, the Flames dropped a second consecutive overtime game (4-3) to the Blues, who they are playing back-to-back.
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At the halfway point of the season, the Flames are clinging to a wild-card spot with 47 points through 42 games. Even though the team continues to pile up points, these single-digit nights are catching up to them with a handful of playoff hopefuls on the schedule.
Jacob Markstrom Costing Team on Nightly Basis with Soft Goals
On Sunday night at the United Center against the Blackhawks (10-25-4), Jacob Markstrom got the nod over Daniel Vladar, despite playing an opponent at the bottom of the standings. It was an odd coaching decision since Markstrom was 5-2 in his last seven games and didn’t need the assignment to build up his confidence.
Instead, Markstom’s shaky play got him pulled in the second period, and the Blackhawks scored the overtime winner on Vladar. Two nights later, Markstrom again got the start but failed to protect a 3-1 lead in the third period, resulting in the Blues tying the game and winning on an odd-man rush in overtime.
At this point last season, the Flames were 22-13-6 (sixth in the West) and walked away with the division title after a productive second half. However, they are 19-14-8 for seventh place in the conference, a slight step back for a team trying to contend for a Stanley Cup championship. Unfortunately, Markstrom’s play is a significant factor in why the season hasn’t gone as planned.
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Last season, Markstrom played in 63 games, registering a save percentage (SV%) of over .900 in 39 contests while earning nine shutouts. However, in 2022-23, after 30 games, he has no shutouts and has registered a SV% higher than .900 in just 13 contests. To say his play has been underwhelming this season is an understatement since he finished third in Vezina Trophy voting last year while leading the league with nine shutouts. For the Flames to make up any ground in the division and create some separation in the wild-card race, they need Markstrom to return to form, or it could be an early offseason.
Finishing Opponents is a Significant Problem for the Flames
After 42 games, the Flames have only two overtime wins, losing nine in the extra frame to lead the league in this category. Furthermore, the team has skated in 25 one-goal games to lead the league in tightly contested matches.
The Flames surrender the third lowest shots against per game in the league, registering at 27.7, slightly behind the Carolina Hurricanes (26.0) and New Jersey Devils (27.3). However, they rank 17th in goals against, with 124. Interestingly, the Flames rank third in shots on goal per game at 34.7 behind the Florida Panthers (35.7) and Hurricanes (35.7) and rank 20th overall with just 128 goals scored.
With a lineup featuring All-Stars like Nazem Kadri, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Tyler Toffoli, it’s puzzling that they can fire over 40 shots on goal and fail to score enough to win contests. Sure, a deeper analysis of the numbers will show the Flames are firing pucks from all angles and not necessarily from high-danger zones, which results in fewer grade-A scoring chances. Whether it’s the system or the players on a steep offensive decline, there’s no reason why only three Flames have scored more than 10 goals.
The entire team’s inability to build leads and protect them will be their Achilles’ heel if a solution doesn’t arise soon. Right now, they have a chance at redemption with a rematch against the Blues on the back end of a twin billing; however, if they stumble again, the games against the Stars and Predators will almost put them in a must-win situation in late January.
Flames Could be Facing a Leadership Problem
After the Flames exposed Mark Giordano in the 2021 Expansion Draft, they have yet to name a captain. Fortunately, Mikael Backlund still serves as an alternate with other long-term veterans like Elias Lindholm and Chris Tanev, as well as newbie Huberdeau. However, at the halfway point of a potentially disappointing season, someone has to step up and be a leader on the ice and in the dressing room.
Last season, the offense ran through Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, who each scored 100 points; however, since their departures, the team’s leading scorer (Lindholm) has 37 points and is on pace for just 74. Sadly, his production is drastically down from 2021-22, when he potted 42 goals and 40 assists. Moreover, in the previous five games, Lindholm has four points.
Speaking of players with four points in the last contests, Huberdeau is also struggling in a new system, with 28 points in 38 games. His production has him on pace for 57 points, exactly half the total he had last season with the Panthers. Unless he picks up many points down the stretch, he could finish with his lowest totals since 2016-17.
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Kadri, another player with four points in the same period, was recently named an All-Star. Although he leads the team in shots and goals, some nights, his presence isn’t there, and he’s not acting like the game-breaker he was signed to be. Like Huberdeau, he is struggling to play within head coach Darryl Sutter’s system and is not finishing when the team needs him to, outside of power-play opportunities, which account for half his goals.
Right now, Rasmus Andersson is leading the team in game-winners (4), ahead of Kadri (3), Adam Ruzicka (2), and Toffoli (2), an indication that the team’s leaders are not responsible for their victories. Most star players play a significant role in their team’s success, and with no one stepping up to lead the Flames right now, they might not be able to overcome adversity down the stretch.
Flames Still Have Time to Right the Wrongs
As pointed out earlier, the Flames were in almost the same position last season and won a division title. Ultimately, their chemistry is different from what it once was, so they must find a new mixture for success. The season is far from over, but with losses against far superior teams continuing to pile up, the games when they collect one point instead of two will eventually catch up to them. Consequently, these upcoming contests could be the difference between being a playoff team or not.
Ryan Gagne is back for his second tour of duty with The Hockey Writers. In 2021 he wrote about the New York Islanders and now will embrace the challenge of covering the Calgary Flames. The best part of this new assignment is Ryan currently lives in Edmonton and will get to see both sides of the Battle of Alberta up close and personal. None of this will make much sense since he was born and raised in New England and the Boston Bruins are his still team.