When the Calgary Flames finally earned a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, it seemed the club had finally turned the corner. On the backs of a promising young forward core, a surprisingly elite defensive core, and a clutch goaltending tandem, the Flames bucked the ‘rebuilding’ title and began turning heads around the league.
That memory in mind, Calgary’s 2015-16 slide has been a notable letdown. They are looking better as of late, having won three of their last five, but eight wins in their first 22 games of the season surely isn’t what most had in mind after a playoff run and an offseason of key upgrades.
Though a few of the team’s marquee stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and T.J. Brodie continue to impress, the Flames have simply looked like a different club in 2015-16. Lacklustre play from key defensive pieces like Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton has played a big role in that shift, as has their tumultuous goaltending situation. But a closer look at Calgary’s recent performance shows that they’ve also completely abandoned the mentality that drove their identity last season.
The mentality in question is that of the Flames reigning as the NHL’s comeback kids. Regardless of what happened in periods one and two, Calgary consistently stepped up in the final frame in 2014-15, and their late-game heroics proved to be a key factor in their return to the playoffs. To think that trend would continue this season would arguably be unrealistic, as the Flames certainly benefitted from some lucky breaks along the way in their quest to become late-game kings. But Calgary hasn’t simply failed to repeat in this regard — they’ve shifted dramatically in the opposite direction.
In 2014-15, the Flames were one of the league’s best when it came to third period play, both in terms of scoring goals and limiting goals from their opposition. Calgary tied for the league lead in third-period goals (with 99), while finishing among the top 10 in the league in terms of lowest third-period goals allowed (letting only 68 into the back of the net).
This season, the Flames have scored only 12 of their 53 goals in the third period – ranking second-last in the league in late-game scoring. On the other end of the rink, they’ve allowed a league-high 32 goals in the third-period, succumbing to quite a few late-game collapses already in the young season. That’s a fairly startling turnaround.
It seems Calgary has not only been unable to match their third-period prowess from last season – they’ve become one of the league’s worst in this category. Making matters worse is the fact that so much of a club’s performance in such situations depends on their mental game. The Flames’ impressive third-period performances late last season surely occurred partly because a few previous comeback wins gave them a solid foundation of belief in their ability to come up big in key moments.
On the other hand, consistently falling short in key moments late in games this season has seemingly evaporated that belief, making them more tentative and prone to mistakes when the final 20 minutes hit the clock. It’s a cycle that seems hard to break, and Calgary has found itself mired in an unwanted version of it at the moment.
However, the Flames have clung to their clutch identity in one aspect of the game — the league’s new 3-on-3 overtime format.
Riding the exceptional play of star winger Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames have been undefeated in overtime so far, going 5–0 when the game is finished in the extra frame. The space created by the new format has meshed extremely well with Gaudreau’s top-tier maneuverability and stickhandling skill – he’s recorded an overtime point in four of the team’s five extra frame victories.
Thus it seems the Flames have established an interesting pattern. They’ve been very strong in the first period (ranking in the top 10 in the league in terms of most first-period goals) meaning they’re likely to pile up goals early and then simply try to weather the storm and avoid a late collapse. Should that collapse come, holding on and trying to get the game to overtime seems to be their best bet, as they hold a much bigger advantage in the 3-on-3 format than in the third, playing 5-on-5.
While it’s a trend that carries plenty of risk, it’s gotten the Flames recent wins over notable clubs like the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks (though, to be fair, Calgary faced backup netminders in both affairs). The Flames may be able to ride their current style to another fringe playoff spot, but it seems unless they are able to balance out their play between each period and come to a more consistent style, another deep playoff run seems a long way off.