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Matinee Miseries: Revisiting the early start woes for the Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames had an infamous reputation surrounding them in the 2019-20 season: They did not show up for games until it was too late. A team consistently plagued by giving up the first goal and playing while trailing, the Flames made it far too easy for their opponents to open up with a lead.

For whatever reason, Calgary just seemed lethargic out of the gates night after night. Even more so, if a game started earlier in the day, the Flames sometimes failed to show up at all. This is highlight by this not-so-fun fact:

During the 2019-20 regular season, the Flames were shutout six times. In all six games, the game started before the Flames’ most common 7 p.m. MST start time.

The early bird feasts on the Flames

Of course, this outcome was just a coincidence, but it’s a little uncanny to say the least. The Flames were shutout in nearly 10% of their games, all of which happened to fall on an earlier start time. I posit that such a coincidence isn’t a long-term issue to worry about, but it sure made for a lot of accumulated frustrations throughout the past season.

To see exactly what happened, I charted the Flames’ goals for and game outcome (strictly looking at if they won or lost a game) versus the game start time throughout the 2019-20 season. Each data point represents a Flames game. As you move down the chart’s y-axis, the season progresses, and along the x-axis is the start time.

A datum at 7:00 p.m. is also added to signify whether a game started relatively early or late for the Flames. The game outcome is represented by the marker shape, with a circle being a loss, and a triangle being a win.

Goals for are represented by colour, ranging from zero to six, which was the Flames’ maximum goals for in a game from the past year. In addition, when the Flames were shutout, the data marker is larger to bring attention to such occurrences.

The chart was created using R and ggplot2, with the data courtesy of

Immediately, the aforementioned not-so-fun fact becomes as clear as day. Six shutouts against, six games that started before 7 p.m. In chronological order, the losses came as follows:

OpponentStart Time (MST)Home or AwayFinal Score (CGYvsOPP)
Arizona Coyotes2:00 p.m.Away0 – 3
Vegas Golden Knights5:00 p.m.Away0 – 6
St. Louis Blues6:00 p.m.Away0 – 5
Carolina Hurricanes2:00 p.m.Home0 – 4
Minnesota Wild3:00 p.m.Away0 – 3
Montreal Canadiens5:00 p.m.Away0 – 2

Click on the final scores to go to Natural Stat Trick‘s game logs, where additional 5v5 score-and-venue adjusted (SVA) statistical observations were made, or click on the start times to go to The Win Column’s game recaps in our About Last Night series.

In mid-November, the Flames went through a tough stretch of hockey, which included three straight road shutout losses to Western Conference teams against the Arizona Coyotes, Vegas Golden Knights, and St. Louis Blues. In between those shutout losses was yet another loss to the Colorado Avalanche, albeit not a shutout loss.

Their next two shutout losses came in mid-December against the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild, the former giving the Flames their only shutout loss on home ice. Their last shutout loss was once again on the road, courtesy of the Montreal Canadiens.

In the six losses, the Flames only posted more expected goals for (xGF) versus the Coyotes with a 64.3 xGF% at 5v5 SVA. In the other five losses, the Flames were either outplayed by a little or outplayed by a lot, with their expected goals ranging from an abysmal 35.0 xGF% against the Golden Knights to a mediocre 47.4 xGF% against the Wild.

In other words, with the exception of Darcy Keumper stealing a win for the Coyotes from the Flames in the first game, the Flames more or less didn’t deserve to win at all in the other five games.

During those early starts, the Flames were often left looking lifeless and ineffective on the ice. In addition to their game against the Coyotes, the Flames actually had more corsi for than the Blues as well, but despite having the higher shot attempt volume, the Blues had higher shot quality, which led to the Flames’ lower xGF%.

All in all, the Flames just didn’t play high-quality hockey in those shutout losses and were consistently the worse team on the ice.

Matinee miracles and misfires

Let’s shift the focus away from the group of shutout losses and take a look at the true early games, in particular those that started before 5:00 p.m, which accounts for a lot of start times on road games in the Eastern Conference.

From the chart, it’s seen that the Flames played eight games that started at 3:00 pm MST or earlier, where they can be viewed as truly early games. In those eight games the Flames lost five, and in those five losses they were shutout thrice.

OpponentStart Time (MST)Home or AwayFinal Score (CGYvsOPP)
Arizona Coyotes2:00 p.m.Away0 – 3
Philadelphia Flyers11:00 a.m.Away3 – 2 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes2:00 p.m.Home0 – 4
Minnesota Wild3:00 p.m.Away0 – 3
Ottawa Senators2:00 p.m.Away2 – 5
Anaheim Ducks2:00 p.m.Home6 – 4
Tampa Bay Lightning2:00 p.m.Away3 – 4
Florida Panthers2:00 p.m.Away3 – 0

The miracles

Let’s first look at the three instances where the Flames walked away with a win.

The Flames were victorious against the Philadelphia Flyers in their 11:00 a.m. MST matinee, earning a 3-2 shootout win, despite posting just a 36.3 xGF%. Calgary was lucky to walk away with two points when they could have easily bowed out if not for David Rittich bailing them out.

Calgary also beat the Anaheim Ducks 6-4 and the Florida Panthers in a 3-0 shutout win of their own. In both games, Cam Talbot backstopped Calgary to victory. Though Talbot wasn’t great against the Ducks, he didn’t have to be as the Flames were instead. Andrew Mangiapane scored a hat trick, and the Flames’ skaters had a 65.8 xGF%, really earning the two points.

However, against the Panthers, Talbot played a much larger role in securing the victory as the two teams played more even games. The Flames only posted a 51.7 xGF% in the matchup, yet they had two 5v5 goals against the Panthers’ zero.

The misfires

The three shutout losses were covered above, but what about the other two losses to the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning? These two losses were quite different compared to each other.

The Flames steamrolled the Senators everywhere except for scoring, ultimately losing 2-5. Rittich stumbled out of the gates and the Senators made it a 4-0 game with five minutes remaining in the third. On the other hand, Marcus Hogberg was lights out for the Senators. Despite the Flames having a controlling 68.7 xGF%, they couldn’t solve Ottawa’s goaltender.

Against the Lightning, the Flames had a somewhat more respectable 3-4 loss, though they were heavily outplayed instead. They only mustered a meagre 32.2 xGF%, yet outscored the Lightning 2-1 at 5v5. However, special teams did the brunt of the work for Tampa Bay as they scored twice on the power pay and once shorthanded to put the Flames away.

Early to rise, early to fall

Calgary’s on-ice product in early games was not one to be proud of. Throughout the season when heading into an matinee game, it felt like a scheduled loss for the Flames. While they didn’t lose every single time, some of both their worst and unluckiest hockey was on display whenever a game started early.

Being shutout in only early games likely won’t happen to Calgary again, but it’s worth noting that they still have a lot of work ahead when it comes to treating every game with the same level of importance.

The Flames often showed up as a lethargic bunch while their opponents came much more prepared to play hockey. A good team knows how to win consistently, no matter the start time. If Calgary wants to return to being the team they are capable of being, they’re going to have to be ready for every game at any time.

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