Any misconceptions “pundits” had about the Flames being a legitimate contender the last few weeks were proven to be so tonight. The bane of their existence, the Chicago Blackhawks, issued a beating that exposed every one of the Flames’ glaring weaknesses, swept under the rug by miracle wins the last few weeks. At a point in the season where the Flames have turned around their seasons in the past, I see some things that are a work in progress and can be fixed but fundamental issues still remain, and drastic measures may have to be taken.
The 7-1 home loss was perhaps the worst I have seen since before Darryl Sutter was hired. The Flames were only really in the game for a small portion of the second period to me. As soon as the Hawks took a two goal lead I knew the Flames wouldn’t be able to come back. The offense was sloppy and couldn’t execute when they came close to scoring, the defence was awful and couldn’t keep up with the Hawks, and Miikka Kiprusoff – the ONLY reason for at least three of the Flames’ 12 wins so far – was not on his game for the first few Hawk goals, after Vezina-worthy play the last week and a half. The power play looked like, and has looked like, a regression to last year’s Mike Keenan/Rich Preston horror show, and the Blackhawks went 4-for-5 on the power play (in the last few games the Flames have allowed 10 power play goals on 18 opportunities.) Simply put, this game was the Flames’ chickens coming home to roost, their extremely sloppy play finally getting what it deserved against an undisputed Western contender. So what can be done?
I always have my scapegoats to make me feel better; this is an obviously intellectually dishonest practice to start which gets harder to do the worse a rout the game is. Nevertheless I have to say something about someone. I wrote off Olli Jokinen about a week into the season and am still not pleased, but he has played somewhat better with a number of assists since the emergence of his bizarre fu Manchu. He even got his first goal that wasn’t a complete fluke tonight (and yet go figure, all three of his goals have come in embarrassing losses.) Hence, the focus has shifted, for the time being, to Dion Phaneuf. After his “rumoured” screaming match with Brent Sutter yesterday, Dion appeared to be the most noticeably bad defenseman tonight, even when the Flames were in the game. (I’d just like to note again that I’ve heard more bad stories about Dion than any other Flames player the last two years. I’m not saying how many of them I believe, but for this reason I was not the least bit surprised when I read of the screaming match.) On the ride home on the C-Train after the game, my friend and dad had a serious discussion about trading Dion for a package including at least one legitimate, proven top six forward. I am not saying this is a possibility, but it brings me to my next point.
If this game was a 4-1 final instead of a 7-1 final I would have come to the same conclusion: the Flames are simply not good enough to beat Chicago. For all I know, they may be able to compete and maybe steal a series from any other likely playoff team, but I just don’t see it against Chicago. Their speed overwhelms them every single time, and the Flames don’t have enough depth on offense to counter them, especially when you consider the fact that Duncan Keith turns Jarome Iginla into a ghost. The latter point is more troubling. In my mind, Iginla and Rene Bourque are the Flames’ only consistently reliable offensive players. Jokinen is what many thought he was, to paraphrase Denny Green. Nigel Dawes is streaky. I think Daymond Langkow might be one of the most underappreciated players on the Flames but I don’t know how well he can be relied upon offensively. David Moss simply does not look like a capable top six forward after being slotted into the top line early in the year. The Flames’ offensive struggles should come as a surprise to no one; going into the year, the consensus was that the Flames would have to primarily rely on their improved defense to win them many games, and this was when most expected Jokinen to replace most of Mike Cammalleri’s goals. However, defense can only carry you so far; if the Flames were seeded against a high scoring team such as the Blackhawks or Wings or Canucks that knew how to shut down Iginla, well, we’ve seen it before. So while I’m confident the defense can turn it around – it’s too good not to – and perhaps Dave Lowry’s powerplay can return to what it looked like in early October, and hopefully the penalty kill can become capable again. But the offense is something that cannot be overlooked, and its weakness on paper is something that will probably come to the forefront eventually if it hasn’t already.
Of course, it is only mid-November still, and the Flames have had a history in recent years of turning their seasons around exactly at this point in the season. Inevitably, comparisons to last season’s November 20th 6-1 loss in San Jose, and the turnaround that followed, will be made, and Brent Sutter is a hundred times the coach that Mike Keenan was. I had to write down something after the worst game I have ever witnessed the Flames play in person. The Flames could well turn it around after this and end up a high seed. But the Flames’ inability to beat the Blackhawks, which raises questions about their ability to beat any playoff team, is the most truly troubling thing.
(Other notes: I would be surprised if Curtis McElhinney didn’t start Saturday afternoon’s game in Los Angeles. The Flames need a wake up call considering how many games they have relied on Miikka Kiprusoff to win, and Kiprusoff had an inevitable off game tonight after a hairy last week and a half. Then again, I was fully expecting McElhinney to start last Saturday’s game in Toronto, an out of conference, back to back game…by far the worst news was Rene Bourque leaving with an apparent lower body injury. The coaching staff refused to comment, simply saying that Bourque would be re-evaluated tomorrow. Another serious Bourque injury would be absolutely devastating, to say the least.)