Saturday, January 07, 2017

Eight From 80 Feet: Reflections on a Strange Night in Vancouver and Other Musings

After one of the weirder Calgary results in recent memory, here's a look back at Friday's 4-2 loss along with some other thoughts on the current goings-on with the Flames.

It's a round-up of randomness I like to call Eight From 80 Feet.

1. Historically Unusual Loss

It's safe to say games like last night don't happen very often and I'm not talking just in the context of the Flames, but league-wide.

Prior to last night's game in which Calgary outshot Vancouver 46-13 but lost 4-2, the last NHL team according to Hockey Reference to have 46-or-more shots, give up 13-or-fewer, and lose was Ottawa on April 6, 2000.

That night at the Corel Centre, the Senators outshot the Islanders by the identical 46-13 margin, but lost 2-1. The masterful performance in goal for New York was turned in by a 22-year-old kid named Steve Valiquette, making only his second career NHL start.

If you don't recall the 6-foot-6, eighth round draft pick of the Kings, you're forgiven as his career was far from illustrious. Valiquette never signed with Los Angeles, eventually signing as a free agent with New York. After that 45-save victory, it would be nearly four years -- all spent in the AHL -- before he finally made his next NHL start, this one coming with the New York Rangers.

He would play only 46 games in his NHL career, winning 14 times. In an interesting side note, he turned down a contract offer to play for Yaroslavl in the KHL the summer prior to the tragic plane crash on September 7, 2011, that resulted in the deaths of the entire Yaroslav team and coaching staff.

2. Hey Joe, Meet Matt

In helping set-up Michael Frolik's opening goal Friday night, Matthew Tkachuk extended his point streak to eight games. That's the longest point spree by a Flames rookie since 21-year-old Joe Nieuwendyk went on a 14-game tear from Dec. 20, 1987 through Jan. 21, 1988, a mark that is the club record. Having just turned 19, Tkachuk is two years younger.

In a side note to that, Nieuwendyk actually had points in 16 consecutive games that he played, but it is only recognized by the NHL as a 14-game point streak and here is why. After scoring four goals against Buffalo on Dec. 13 of that 1987-88 season, then scoring a goal against Winnipeg in the team's next game on Dec. 16, he was a scratch for Calgary's game in Los Angeles on Dec. 19 due to a stomach ailment. That game missed ended his point streak by the NHL's official criteria. Back at zero, he started the 14-game streak the next night with a goal at the Saddledome in the back end of the back-to-back set with the Kings.

There were similar circumstances around Johnny Gaudreau's point streak earlier this season. His goal in Minnesota, the game he broke his finger, ended up not being recognized in his subsequent point streak that began after he returned from his 10-game absence. So while he had points in eight consecutive games he played, it was only officially recognized by the league as a seven-game streak.

One distinction with Nieuwendyk's streak is he piled up a ton of goals while also averaging over two points per game. Over those 14 contests on his way to a 51-goal, 92-point rookie season, Nieuwendyk potted 15 goals and 29 points. During Tkachuk's run, he's had only one multi-point game and eight of his nine points have been assists.

But, it's also a completely different era now. Back in 1987-88, the Flames scored 397 goals in 80 games -- and that was before 3-on-3 overtime (or even 4-on-4 OT, for that matter) came into being. That works out to an unfathomable-to-imagine average of nearly five goals per game. With 109 goals in 41 games this year, Calgary is averaging 2.7 goals per game.

3. Climbing the Calder Scoring Ladder

Tkachuk's point streak ties him with Toronto's Auston Matthews for the longest this season by a rookie. The streak for Matthews (8-4-12) is also still active and coincidentally, his streak also started on Dec. 19, the same night Tkachuk began his run with a two-assist effort in Arizona.

Tkachuk is approaching some rarified air with this current run, which he will try to extend to nine games on Saturday night when the Flames host Vancouver in the back end of the home-and-home. In the last four years, only three rookies have compiled point streaks longer than eight games:
  • Shayne Gostisbehere PHI - 15 games (5-13-18) in 2015-16
  • Nathan MacKinnon COL - 13 games (5-13-18) in 2013-14
  • Mark Stone OTT -  9 games (8-5-13) in 2014-15

He's also creeping up on the pack in the rookie scoring race. Since the streak began nearly three weeks ago, only Matthews has more points than Tkachuk.

In fact, go back to mid-November when Tkachuk returned to the line-up after missing two games with a cut on his hand and he's tied for third in rookie scoring:

NHL Rookie Scoring - Since Nov. 15

1. Auston Matthews TOR, 23 gm, 15-8-23
2. Patrik Laine WPG, 24 gm, 10-10-20
T3. Anthony Mantha DET, 23 gm, 10-8-18
T3. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 25 gm, 4-14-18
5. Mitch Marner TOR, 23 gm, 5-12-17

While Matthew and Laine are looking like locks to be two of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy this season, Tkachuk should definitely be in the conversation to be the third if you also take into consideration the heavy defensive responsibilities he takes on in playing on Calgary's shutdown line. The kid has been absolutely terrific.

4. Brodie Bouncing Back

All in all, it hasn't been a great season for TJ Brodie, who has not looked quite right much of the year and with reason. While he's playing his natural left side, it's not your natural side when you prefer the right side and have been playing it most of your life.

Plus, partnering with slow-footed Dennis Wideman is also an entirely different dynamic than being alongside Mark Giordano, who prior to this season had been his regular partner.

But he appears to be turning the corner, while still doing all that heavy lifting.

Brodie played a season-high 27:29 on Friday. It's the second time in nine days he's been over 27 minutes, which up until this point is a mark he hadn't hit since last March. That tells me that coach Glen Gulutzan recognizes that is game is coming around and is relying on him even more.

Also encouraging, his four shots on goal against the Canucks was a season-high. This isn't a guy that shoots a lot. Only four times in his career has he had more than four shots in a game. It shows that he was in the middle of the action on Friday. In fact, you could say he was the epicentre.

Wading into some advanced stats from Friday reveals just how good the team was when Brodie was on the ice.

With Brodie on the ice at 5-on-5:
  • Shot attempts for - 31
  • Shot attempts against - 4

A plus-27 differential is insane and is the biggest such number in a single game for a Flames player going back to the start of 2010-11, which is as far back as the NHL's official advanced stats records go.

The previous high of +26 (35 shot attempts for, 9 shot attempts against) belonged to Lee Stempniak, who did that on Feb. 2, 2013.

You may recall that night against Chicago. It was the lockout-shortened season and the Blackhawks came to Calgary on a Saturday night having picked up a point in their first eight games (6-0-2), a streak that would eventually reach 24 games (21-0-3) before suffering their first regulation loss. Calgary outshot the visitors 47-19 and Jay Bouwmeester beat Ray Emery to give the Flames a 2-1 lead with 35 seconds left in the third period before Marian Hossa tied it at 19:57. Chicago won it in a shootout.

Another interesting side note is after being a positive plus-minus player only four times in the season's first 35 games, Brodie has been in the black four times in the last six games -- and while not being a minus at all in that span.

It's dangerous to read too much into plus-minus but being worst in the league as Brodie was in that category not that long ago was clearly not a good thing. But lately he's begun to slowly chip away at that figure. It's still minus-16, but it sure beats minus-20.

5. Insane Possession Game

The shot attempts for the game on Friday was a mind-blowing 84-22 in favour of Calgary.

If you look strictly at 5-on-5 play and that always is a more pertinent measuring point, it was an equally impressive 61-18 ratio. That possession percentage (aka SAT%) of 77.22 for the Flames was the highest by any team in an NHL game in nearly two years.

On Jan. 30, 2015, Vancouver had a 82.86 percent (58-12 ratio) in a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

Flames Top Five Possession Games - Since 2010-11:

1. 77.22 - Jan. 6, 2017 - 4-2 loss in Vancouver
2. 69.47 - Apr.  6, 2011 - 6-1 win vs. Edmonton
3. 68.29 - Nov. 16, 2016 - 2-1 (OT) win vs. Arizona
T4. 68.18 - Mar. 30, 2011 - 4-2 loss vs. Anaheim
T4. 68.18 - Feb. 17, 2016 - 5-3 loss vs. Minnesota

There is one reason the Flames lost the game on Friday and that reason is Ryan Miller.

6. Soft Spot Almost Gone

Saturday night marks the end of seven-game segment that began on Dec. 23, which at the outset looked like an incredibly soft part of the schedule with six of the games coming against teams that at the time were the bottom three clubs in the overall standings.

So far, Calgary has gone a respectable 4-2-0.

Before that stretch began, I said you want to get through this segment with at least five wins. Sure, you could be greedy and expect six wins, but the reality is sometimes you'll lose a game you deserved to win and that was the case on Friday.

Of course, also worth noting is the schedule hasn't turned out to be quite as soft as first thought given the Canucks hot play of late. Vancouver, the opponent in three of the games, are now on a six-game winning streak that has them in a wild card spot in the Western Conference. With that exhibit entered into evidence, five wins in seven games really will be a solid and respectable outcome in a league where you never know what can happen on any given night.

So we'll see if Calgary can pick up those 9th and 10th points of this 16-day segment tonight. If they turn in a similar effort at home as they did at Rogers Arena, surely they won't be leaving the building without a win this time.

7. Elliott's Tough Night

Did Brian Elliott get out duelled by Miller on Friday? Absolutely. But if you're hanging all four goals on him, I encourage you to watch the highlights again. The second and fourth goals were both bad bounces that he had no real chance on.

Sure, two bad goals allowed in a game is still not great and it will probably pave the path for Chad Johnson's return tonight, but way more than Elliott losing the game, Friday night was a case of Miller stealing the game for the Canucks.

Calgary could easily have had five or six goals and that would have been plenty of run support for Elliott to get another victory. Instead, his five-game winning streak is snapped.

But I wouldn't let Friday night detract from what had been a decent little run for Elliott of late. Sure, his winning streak has come against some softer opponents, but they're still NHL teams with NHL players shooting the puck and over that five-game span, he fashioned a tidy .922 save percentage and a 1.80 goals-against average.

As they say, all players over the course of a six-month season will have good and bad nights. It's just that those games when you are a goalie are more amplified.

I don't think Elliott will have to wait too long to get back in the net and when he does return, I wouldn't be surprised if he bounces back with another solid effort like we've seen over the last couple weeks.

8. Middle-Six Scoring Drought

With the schedule about to get more difficult starting Monday night when the Flames play in Winnipeg, they'll need to get more offence from the rest of the team as lately it's been all about the Backlund-Frolik-Tkachuk line.

Young stars Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett have combined for only four even-strength points over the last six games. That's only one more than fourth liner Matt Stajan has on his own and that's clearly not good enough.

Flames Even-strength scoring - Last six games:

Backlund, 4-3-7
Frolik, 1-4-5
Tkachuk, 1-3-4
Brodie, 0-4-4
Wideman, 1-2-3
Stajan, 0-3-3
Gaudreau, 2-0-2
Versteeg, 0-2-2
D. Hamilton, 0-2-2
Giordano, 1-0-1
Chiasson, 1-0-1
Bennett, 1-0-1
Bouma, 1-0-1
Engelland 0-1-1
Monahan, 0-1-1
Ferland, 0-0-0
Hathaway, 0-0-0
Wotherspoon, 0-0-0
Jokipakka, 0-0-0
F. Hamilton, 0-0-0

Since the start of December, Calgary's power play (21-for-60, 35.0%) has been phenomenal and is ranked No. 1 in the league over that period. The penalty kill (51-for-58, 87.9%) has been great also at fifth-best over that same duration.

What the special teams success has disguised are some concerns offensively, especially lately, at five-on-five. For the Flames to hang onto the playoff spot they currently possess, they'll need to get more from their middle six forwards. That's Gaudreau, Monahan, Alex Chiasson, Bennett, Micheal Ferland and Kris Versteeg.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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      1. Just one thing: Overtime for regular season games was adopted in the 83/84 season.

        1. Thank you. Wow, memory starting to fade in my old age. Have clarified that it was before 3-on-3 (or even 4-on-4) overtime. I'll need to go back and see what percentage of games were decided in OT back then in such a higher scoring era. Mind you, for that same reason, fewer games probably got to overtime too. Cheers.

        2. What I recall from back in those days was that if a game was tied with seven or eight minutes to go, both teams tended to play conservatively because they at least wanted to secure the single point, and that same thought-process would often be extended to overtime.

      2. Missed the game last night.. thanks for a great recap. Hoping for a better outcome tonight

        1. It was an odd one. Full disclosure, I missed the second period and end of first and early third as I was watching an equally thrilling 2-2 bantam girls hockey game. But did skim the highlights, some tough luck once again for Elliott.

      3. I'm encouraged that three of the top 5 possession games are under GG. Fans asked for a more possession focused coach, and it seems we got one.

        1. Two out of five as the other 2016 was last year but your point is still valid. Starting with the GM last spring when Hartley was dismissed, he wanted to be a team that had the puck more and he sought out a coach that could implement a system that catered to that.

          What you see this season is a team that rather than make a risky play or trying to force a pass in a 50/50 situation, will hang onto the puck instead, regroup, and try to find a better option. It is noticeable that the 'plan' has changed when they have possession and it's about keeping the puck as was Treliving's desire since last season (and probably before).

      4. Its hard to compete at an NHL level when your top skill guy cant handle the puck, too often this year the play dies on his stick, he hasn't had the glue as in the past and when you add an unwillingness to retrieve lost pucks and zero physical competitiveness then that creates a huge hole in the lineup. He may not win a lot of physical battles but momentum will win some of them and if he were to engage competitively then that might be enough to light a fire. This lack of physical play has now started to permeate itself throughout the lineup with very little truculence along the boards, in corners or in front of our net. It may be a reflection of today's officiating in the NHL but hockey is still a contact sport and the Flames cant have half the team playing a "college" style. The league has adjusted to his style and a couple twist and turns in neutral territory is easily mitigated with stick checks and physical play. The team needs a response to all the stickwork being exacted on them and if it takes some wild "tit for tat" then its long overdue. The team has been reluctant to provide any sort of retaliation for liberties taken by just about every-bodies game plans, so that huge salary is maybe gonna warrant his own devices and a willingness to combat to stir up some combativeness from his teammates. Either that or bring up Kanzig and Bollig.