Thursday: Pittsburgh Penguins @ CGY
As both teams were tied in a scoreless contest with less than five minutes remaining in regulation, Kris Versteeg was sitting on the bench already thinking up what move he was going to try on Tristan Jarry in the shootout. Whenever the Calgary Flames play the Pittsburgh Penguins, the games tend to be even with the two teams going the distance as of late. Sean Monahan scored a late goal on the powerplay to give the Flames a lead just to see it disappear a few minutes later on a fluky goal courtesy of a Patric Hornqvist tip off a Kris Letang point shot. With the score tied after regulation, another exciting overtime matchup was due. The Flames beat the Penguins for the fifth consecutive game after Matthew Tkachuk bested Sidney Crosby in keepaway to set Mark Giordano up for the game winner.
Flames Player of the Game
The honour once again goes to Mike Smith, who kept the team in the game after a first period onslaught from the Penguins. The recurring theme of the Flames’ season so far is to start the game half asleep and let Smith keep them in it. Last night was no different. Saving 43 of 44 shots he faced, Smith held his ground as the Flames found their groove. He’s had a number of stellar performances already, and for the first time many years, the Flames are at ease with their goaltending as they focus on fixing their other problems.
Bill: Not only can the Flames hold their ground against the Stanley Cup Champions, they can win. The last three contests between these two teams required extra time, and the Flames have come out on top in all of them. The Flames have been largely unsuccessful in winning in front of the home crowd thus far, but have now managed to pick up wins against Washington and Pittsburgh, bringing them to 2-1 so far in their seven game homestand. In much better overall games, they have to be wary about their starts. Without Smith, the Flames would likely have surrendered many more first period goals and be forced to play catch up. However, with the score tied for the majority of the game, they were able to focus on their own game.
The Flames once again showed that they can very well be the better team when it’s 5v5, something other teams in the league are likely taking note of by now. Not only did the Flames mostly stay out of penalty trouble, they also had a few calls go their way last night to go positive on the penalty differential.
One player that stood out last night was no other than the newly unleashed Brett Kulak. In his limited minutes, he posted a CF% of 60% at 5v5. Regardless of his small sample size, he’s already doing more with the puck than Matt Bartkowski has done so far. Kulak is taking shots and creating scoring chances. He has quickly settled into his third pairing role and has shown that being a little patient is all it takes to earn a roster spot over Bartkowski. Kulak has already outplayed Bartkowski in almost every metric despite playing 30 minutes less. A measure of special interest between the two are high danger CF. Kulak currently boasts a 5v5 HDCF% of 62.5% compared to Bartkowski’s 36.7%. It is undeniable that playing Kulak gives the Flames a better chance to win and he certainly deserves the opportunity to help the team do exactly that.
John: Thursday night games are always difficult to pay attention to due to TWC Power Rankings, but last night sure tested my attention span. The Flames were off to an embarrassing start after what can only be described as a first period from hell. With shots leaning 19-8 after the first, it is a minor miracle the Flames were able to weather the storm. While they never dominated the game in the same fashion as the Pens did in the first period, they were able to control play and end up earning two points in the end. This is exactly what the team needs: the ability to endure tough stretches of hockey and still get results.
Of course, this was due to one man’s performance: Smith’s. He continues to put forth a better game each and every night which has been the most pleasant surprise so far this season. With everyone doubting his abilities before the season, Smith has a 0.936 SV% and a 2.19 GAA. With less than stellar numbers in Arizona over the last few seasons, it was fair not to expect all-star numbers, but he is the main reason the Flames are 7-6-0 right now.
Everyone jokes about the fact that he left Arizona and yet may feel like he is still there with the high number of shots against he has faced in Calgary. But I beg to differ. He has said he prefers the higher number of low quality shots as it allows him to settle into a more consistent groove. If we were facing a lower number of higher quality shots, as was predicted with our top defensive group, he may have struggled to find his game. What I like about him most is his competitiveness. You could see his frustration immediately after the Penguins scored the tying goal, and this has happened multiple times throughout the season. When asked if he was upset he couldn’t get the shutout, he clearly showed that he couldn’t care less about personal achievements at this point. Smithrusoff wants to win, and he wants to win now.
Karim: The Flames may have started last night’s game on the ropes, but they were definitely the controlling team for the second half of it. They ended the game with 53% CF, and though Smith was forced to make 43 saves, they threw 34 pucks at Jarry as well. They also led in high danger scoring chances 15-13, and completely neutralized the Crosby line who finished with third worst CF% on the Penguins roster. Tkachuk was clearly the best skater on the ice last night. In case you haven’t seen the clip yet, a quick spin move in overtime completely fooled Crosby and immediately led to the winning goal by Giordano. Tkachuk finished wtih 70% CF with just 17% zone starts, all while being matched against the best player in the world for the entire game. I didn’t really believe the narrative until last night, but it’s very possible that Tkachuk is as much a driver of the 3M line as Mikael Backlund is. And that’s saying a lot.
Mark Jankowski didn’t dent the scoresheet, but his game was a mixed bag of good and bad, pretty much what you expect from a rookie third line center. He had 100% zone starts but only finished with 48% CF. At the same time, he had several eye opening plays where his speed was on full display and just failed to capitalize on a couple great scoring chances. He looks like he’ll be a fixture on the third line for a long time and seems to be gaining confidence every game.
The Flames owed the game to Smith for bailing them out of the whole first period and some incredible scoring chances later in the game. They did figure it out after the halfway mark, and this team does look more complete as the games go by. Currently 2/3 on their home stand, they welcome a hot New Jersey team to the dome which will be another tough contest.
Game data courtesy:
Sunday: New Jersey Devils @ CGY