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Flames Game Day: Now what?


Nationwide Arena

Opposition: The Cannon

TV: Sportsnet West

"It was a huge lack of mental toughness within the group. This just shows how much work needs to be done with this group.

"It's not about structure or anything like that. It's about stuff between their ears. The game is 90 per cent mental."

Brent Sutter uttered that indictment after last night debacle. I suppose if he and the team's management wanted a test of commitment to the brave new world he's trying to implement, last night in Chicago certainly provided one. The answers his players gave when the Hawks turned up the heat likely aren't sitting very well this morning, and they shouldn't.  Bad habits acquired and entrenched over the last few years are still dominant, and once again the Flames were exposed by the Blackhawks as not being up to snuff. There isn't any legitimate excuse for what happened after gaining a 5-0 lead, short of mass food poisoning during the first intermission. Being honest, if last night's episode had happened to a team like the Maple Leafs, our collective response would have been, I submit, roughly along the lines of: "Well, that's what bad teams do. They roll over under adversity. That's part of the reason why they're losers." However you might like to characterize things, the last two periods were the sort of meltdown in the first game of a back to back that doesn't exactly fill one with confidence for this evening's follow-up in Columbus, especially with the recent history of the team in such scenarios being what it is. 


So, what to do? The first line got off to a good start, but they were subject to a Corsi drowning as the night progressed, and Olli Jokinen's first regular season goal since last March was negated by the turnover leading to the Seabrook winner. I'm not blaming Jokinen exclusively for Iginla's struggles, because Iginla had issues last year before he arrived, but that pair can't carry the play against good players, and coaches with good EV players will target them to Calgary's detriment until they play better or are split. I'm not expecting them to play better at this point, because there isn't any sort of evidence backing such a case. I do wonder if starting them in their own zone on a regular basis is the best course of action. They've taken a high percentage of d-to-o-zone faceoffs, and neither Iginla or Jokinen are that good on the dot, or in their own end generally. Of course, given how terrible the other centers have been, maybe that's simply a process of elimination. Langkow is winning 44.7% of his draws, and Boyd and Conroy are sub-40%, so the first line likely seems a good bet by comparison. 


The second line has had two difficult games in a row. They didn't suffer as badly as the first group in Kent's count of scoring chances or by Corsi, but they were -8 at EV in the collective for the second game running. Maybe it's just me, but Langkow doesn't seem quite like himself. It could just be the bounces as well, but I never expected him to be -9 in any run of games, let alone 6.


The bottom two lines are in flux due to Moss' injury, so I'm reserving judgement on them for now. It was nice to see Boyd break out, and credit to McGrattan for his part in that goal. Still, the fourth line played about 5 minutes at EV, and only had two shifts in the third. I wonder if that would be the case if the fourth line was still Prust-Nystrom-Sjostrom? The Flames need as many fully functioning units as possible, because the first two lines aren't at the level needed to carry the team exclusively. Beyond all that, Conroy has to start doing better in the circle. He's taken a higher percentage of d-zone to o-zone faceoffs than anyone, and he's registered a smooth 39.8% on the dot. Tough to go anywhere when you don't start with the puck.


Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regher had single game Corsi figures of -17. Yeesh. That's a lot of shots to be in the hole over roughly 20 minutes of EV time. Cory Sarich was eased in, with only 12 minutes of ice time. I'm guessing that might change soon enough, and if nothing else it does give the team another PK guy. 


Miikka Kiprusoff wasn't really the problem last night, although I'd bet he'd like that Seabrook goal that went through the wickets back, and not just because it was the game winner. If Brent Sutter is true to his word, McElhinney may get back in. I can pretty much hear the "it isn't fair for him" already, and I'm 800 miles or so from the source, but such is the life of a back-up. If he plays tonight and doesn't completely stink, he'll get zero heat from me. Had the team won last night, I suspect McE would have been a lock to play tonight. Now? No clue.


And so, on to Columbus. The Blue Jackets are 3-1 to begin the year, albeit with Corsi and SA numbers that resemble Calgary's. They're -7.8 on the shots side, and only have 5 players in the black in terms of Corsi. Rick Nash leads the Jackets with 2-4-6 in 4 games, and Jan Hejda is already +7. His Corsi is no hell, but starting in your own zone the majority of the time usually kicks the hell out of that number, and Hedja gets fewer offensive zone draws by percentage than any other BJ defenceman. The guy is good, and ranks up there with Glencross in the recent list of guys Shelbyville should have kept around. I suspect he and Sami Pahlsson will see plenty of Iginla and Jokinen by design, although that might be just on their reputations at this point. Steve Mason is the likely starter tonight, but Mathieu Garon pitched a shutout in Phoenix Saturday, so they do have a viable number 2.


Tonight, I think the team goal has to be preventing last night's handiwork from lingering. They look a bit fragile mentally, and I'd guess a poor start will lead to a blowout. Columbus aren't the killer out-shooting team Chicago is, so if the Flames don't piss things away early, they might have a chance to survive and sneak a point or two. Calgary's recent history suggests that they do nothing of the sort in B2B situations, so again, it's a point of examination for the coach. He made all the right noises after last night's collapse. I'm curious to see how they respond, and not just tonight. Game time is 5 PM MT, with coverage on Sportsnet West.