What had looked like their best effort of the season turned into the most heartbreaking loss of the year for the Calgary Flames tonight. Despite two two-goal leads, an unexpectedly valiant effort from Curtis McElhinney in net, and the best overall effort of the season, the Flames still lost 4-3 in overtime to the Red Wings.
There are two main reasons I see for this loss. The first is that they simply ran out of gas; Detroit turned up the heat in the third and McElhinney could only take so many shots. The second, and perhaps more important, is a basic lack of execution on plays that matter for the Flames. This has plagued them all year, and it was especially prevalent on the late wide-open net that Todd Bertuzzi somehow missed on the powerplay in the final two minutes, as well as David Moss' well-wide shot on a 2 on 1 with Bert in the first. After Bertuzzi missed that open net, I thought to myself, "There's no way we're winning this game". (It's been outright painful watching Bert struggle to score. The good thing is that he's still racking up some nice assists). The big positive was Curtis McElhinney's performance. I think that, regardless of whether or not Kipper keeps up his recent great performances, he can't handle the same workload he used to. Having a capable backup is therefore big for the Flames. It's the same reason they brought in CuJo last year.
The execution issue is one of the things I'll talk about in what I'm calling my "almost-mid-December thoughts". (This is what happens when you fall behind in your blogging). With the overtime loss, the Flames take 5 out of 8 possible points on their hellish 4-game road trip against St. Louis, the Rangers, Canadiens, and Wings, and I'm happy with this. I'm happy with the fact that the games against the Rangers and Wings were the two best games the Flames have played all year, and that the Habs game was a bit closer than the score indicated. Strangely, the Flames played their best hockey of the year against three of the league's best teams, and got extremely lucky to beat one of the league's worst teams in St. Louis. This is emblematic of their bizarre inconsistency, a problem yet to be fixed.
There is nothing I can say about the power play that hasn't already been said (it seems cliche at this point to ask why Rich Preston still has a job.) However, the penalty kill, currently ranked 2nd in the West and 6th in the NHL, has been a very pleasant surprise. I knew Rene Bourque would be good when I saw that 5 of his 10 goals last year were shorthanded, but I had no idea just how good until I saw him up close. Matthew Lombardi has continued his strong PK performance from last year as well - it's just a shame he can't do anything else.
When they're off, the Flames' problems are innumerable, when they're on, one of the main problems I see (besides the powerplay) is their inability to finish off plays. I've seen it especially in the last few games: 2 on 1s or 3 on 1s that get broken up or fail when the puck carrier makes a wrong decision or does something like shoot it wide or fan, passes not connecting (actually the passing game in general is still a huge work in progress), missing shots from scoring positions (is it just me or does Calgary miss the net more than most teams?), etc. Is it because of the Flames' lack of pure skill on paper, a lack of chemistry, lack of confidence, or some combination of these? I am not entirely sure, all I know is it needs to change.
I predicted before this season started that Mike Keenan would be gone by Christmas. The way the team is playing right now, that seems unlikely. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your level of cynicism. The good news is that the division still looks attainable and that the Flames look a bit faster than last year, are starting to form some chemistry (pending Keenan's next line changes), and that all of Sutter's offseason acquisitions have looked outstanding. The bad news is that most of the same problems they had last year are still bothering them. With 12 games to go until the midway point, I predict that if Keenan is fired it will be after the season, and that it's only a matter of time before Sutter gives up on Matthew Lombardi and gives Dustin Boyd his top six spot.
But enough of that musing, I'm just going to be happy at the 5 points gotten from a relatively successful hellish road trip. Next up is Florida at home, then back to St. Louis again. If the Flames can keep up their play of the last three games, they should win both games.