The Calgary Flames are 3-0 and tops in the Western Conference. Normally I would be delirious with joy, especially when you throw the fact that the Canucks are 0-3 into the mix. However, each Flames victory thus far has left something to be desired, whether it be less shots against, better defensive play, or a better performance from the first line.
The Flames trotted out onto the ice in their retro unis to face the Montreal Canadiens for the 100th time, and got off to a great start; they put a lot of pressure on the Canadiens, and took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Eric Nystrom just after the mid-way mark. The Flames were outshooting Montreal and playing a solid defensive game, until they scored the go-ahead goal.
After that, they got too wrapped up in trying to defend the lead and the mistakes started to pile up, resulting in Montreal's first goal with just over a minute left when the duo of Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen failed to clear the puck past former teammate Mike Cammalleri. Just thirty-seconds later, the Habs were again pouring on the pressure, and took the lead when Guillaume Latendresse swatted the puck into a yawning cage past Miikka Kiprusoff.
The Flames came out flying again in the second period and managed to maintain the pressure for most of the middle frame, outshooting Montreal 16-6 and taking a 3-2 lead on a goal by Iginla on the lone powerplay of the game after Nystrom squared the affair earlier in the period. The lead would not last, however, as Thomas Plekanec would tie it up with just ten-seconds remaining in the period after Robyn Regehr failed to stay with his man behind the net and allowed Plekanec to walk out in front of the net untouched, firing a backhand shot top-shelf on Kiprusoff. Three Montreal goals in the last minute of play in each of the first two periods does not instill much confidence in this team's ability to hold a lead.
Brent Sutter must have been furious during intermission, because the Flames came out firing on all cylinders again to start the third and were rewarded with a quick goal on a screened slap-shot that was originally thought to belong to Eric Nystrom, giving the winger his first career hat trick. The goal was later awarded to Staffan Kronwall for his first career NHL tally. It was all Montreal after that goal, however, as the Flames reverted back to dump-and-chase hockey, desperately clinging onto a one-goal lead. As a result, the Canadiens dominated, outshooting the Flames 15-5, but the home team retained the lead and held on for the 4-3 win thanks to some timely saves from Kiprusoff.
The thing that I do not understand is how this team can dominate the opposition for extended periods of time, but when they have the lead, they unravel and completely abandon the "system" that enabled them to get to that position--speed, strong forecheck, sustained pressure, getting pucks to the net, simple outlet passes, and keeping the opposition to the outside. I feel like I am beating this point to death but it is a recurring pattern that just drives me up the wall. The most worrying aspect seems to be that they are unable to clear the zone under pressure, which almost always leads to a goal or at the very least a crucial faceoff in the defensive zone--which, by the way, was an atrocious stat for the Flames in last night's game.
Turnovers in the defensive and neutral zones continue to be a problem and have led to a number of quality scoring chances against. Thankfully, the Flames have also been very good at forcing turnovers and creating scoring chances of their own. When picking out the positives in last night's game I found a few areas that I really liked--the Flames accumulated 28 shots on goal--the most so far, and allowed 30 against--the least so far, which is somewhat encouraging, they were very good at getting traffic to the net which was critical on all four goals, and they were very disciplined. The Flames didn't take a single minor penalty the entire game and scored on the lone powerplay they received--a hooking call on Max Pacioretty.
The play of the first line is still a contentious issue, as Iginla scored his first of the season on a good-looking backhand on the powerplay, showing his poise and patience with the puck. Moss was practically invisible after scoring two against the Oilers on Saturday, and Jokinen collected an assist but has yet to score. All three were -1, hovering around sixteen minutes of ice time. They probably would have got more if the Flames had had more powerplays, but Sutter continues to exercise his philosophy of no forward playing more than twenty-two minutes a game.
Can we all just appreciate the awesomeness of these vintage unis for a moment? I hope they make this their official third/alternate jersey, but I don't want it to be over-used like the Oilers' retro jersey.
The second line led all forwards in ice time at around twenty-minutes each, but had nothing to show for it in terms of points. They were very strong on the forecheck and in creating turnovers, especially Bourque, who was one of the best players on the ice for the Flames last night. I think I love him almost as much as Milan Lucic. The third line of Glencross-Conroy-Boyd also created a number of good scoring chances and Conroy was flying against his former team, but all three were snakebitten, especially Boyd, who had a series of excellent opportunities in the second.
The Nystrom-Sjostrom-Prust line, affectionately dubbed the "Prustrom" line, is golden and continues to generate whispers about the best fourth line trio in the league. Nystrom had an almost hat trick, Sjostrom an assist, and Prust, well he did this:
All three were plus players, the only forwards to finish on the positive side of things.
On defence, Adam Pardy was excellent, collecting two assists on the game-tying and game-winning goals, a +3 rating, and a highlight-reel worthy hit on Max Pacioretty. Staffan Kronwall, subbing in for Cory Sarich who is still day-to-day with a foot injury, was also surprisingly good, as he scored the game-winning goal, assisted on another, and finished a +2. Bouwmeester and Giordano were also very good, finishing even and +1 respectively. JBo led the team in ice time again, but at only 24:22, about five minutes less that he has been playing thus far.
The pairing of Regehr and Phaneuf continues to struggle, as both were -3. I thought that Phaneuf was slightly better and his rating was not necessarily indicative of his play, but Regehr seems to be on a different planet altogether. It is almost as if he is trying too hard to get involved in the play, advice which I'm sure he hasn't been getting from Brent Sutter, and doesn't seem to be able to keep track of his man in the defensive zone. He is losing puck battles and rather than punishing the opposing team's forwards, he seems to be getting pushed around.
Which brings me to my next point--injury. Bear with me here, but it is possible that either Regehr or Phaneuf or both are not entirely healthy or Sarich will be out for longer than anticipated, which might explain the move the Flames made today, sending Quad City's leading scorer last season Kyle Greentree to Chicago in exchange for defenceman Aaron Johnson. What other reason could Darryl Sutter possibly have for acquiring another defenceman, except perhaps to make up for the loss of Anton Stralman?
Kronwall has exceeded expectations as the sixth defenceman with Sarich out, but if one of the Flames' top blueliners wasn't 100%, Sutter could have easily called up someone like Seabrook, Pelech, or Negrin from Abbotsford to fill the void. This deal baffles me, as a few of Sutter's deals have recently. He is either putting one Hell of a package together for a top-six forward or is trying to assemble an entire team of defencemen. Whatever it is, he is taking the term defensive depth to the extreme, perhaps as a result of last season's parade to the sick bay down the stretch.
All in all, this was an entertaining game. The Flames showed that they are capable of sustaining pressure and playing within a defensive system for extended periods of time, just not a full sixty-minutes, they're not quite there yet. They showed some resilience in coming back from behind and didn't give up when Montreal came back to tie it, but still have a lot to improve upon from a consistency standpoint.
Up Next: The Flames travel to Edmonton again for Round 2 of the BOA tomorrow night (7:30 PM MT). Someone try to remind Khabibulin what team he plays for before puck drop.
Images courtesy of the Flames Insider