In the midst of their first adverse stretch of the season, it's easy to be down on the Calgary Flames.
A five game losing streak is never easy to swallow -- as a fan, coach, or player -- yet, I think the message needs to be the same, regardless of who’s hearing it. If the Flames continue playing the way they have for much of this five game slide, they’re going to turn things around and they’re going to go back to winning more than they’re losing.
What we’ve seen from the Flames in the last five games is probably the longest stretch this season when they’ve played the way they needed to on a consistent basis. I know that sounds crazy knowing they’ve lost all five of those games and knowing they had won 12 of their last 16 games before that, but I honestly believe it’s the truth.
There’s a certain way Calgary needs to play to have success under coach Bob Hartley. They need to attack with speed, activate the blueliners, force mistakes and turnovers with their forecheck and be extremely detail oriented defensively.
In their last 15 periods, we’ve seen all of that in large quantities which is backed up with numbers and by trusting your eyes. Unfortunately, the Flames just haven’t been rewarded with the desired results.
So, if all that is true, why aren’t they winning when they’re doing so many things right? Well, I know it sounds simple, but that’s what happens in an 82 game season. Things tend to balance themselves out and while there were games Calgary was probably fortunate to win earlier in the season, we’re now seeing some contests of late where they’re unfortunate to lose.
Here’s a good, somewhat cruel, idea of how things balance themselves out. Following the 4-3 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 4, the Flames were at a peak record of 17-8-2. In those first 27 games, they were shooting at 11.7 percent overall and 9.6 percent at even strength -- both were second highest totals in the NHL at the time. In the five games since, those percentages have dropped to 4.9 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively.
Shooting as high as the Flames were early on was probably a little too much to ask long term, but what we’ve seen recently isn’t going to continue either. Their shooting percentage will normalize to somewhere in the middle, eventually. If the Flames can keep generating offence at a higher rate -- like they have of late -- they should be in decent shape when their shooting percentage naturally returns closer to the middle.
The fact is, Calgary has been generating more offence in recent games and that’s why the signs are encouraging, despite the results. In the first three games of this skid, Calgary spent more time in the offensive end than not. In fact, in those losses to San Jose, Toronto, and Buffalo, the Flames generated 181 even strength shot attempts for as opposed to just 126 against for a shot rate of 59.0 percent. Plain and simple, in terms of how offensive zone time is divided, Calgary got almost 60 percent of it, peaking at 62.1 percent against the Sabres.
When you start talking about the formula to win more hockey games than you lose, having the puck more at the right end of the ice than the other team is a pretty good start. Even when you take into account situational play when Calgary was chasing and adjusting their game plan in third period of the game in Toronto, those numbers are pretty impressive.
So what about the last two losses? Those games are a little different because against elite possession teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago, it’s tough to have as much zonetime as they had prior. That doesn’t mean there are no positives, though, because there absolutely are.
Remember that third key to the way the Flames play: extremely detail oriented defensive coverage. So, yes, Calgary’s even strength shot rate (or Corsi rate) dropped to 34.3 percent against the Penguins and Blackhawks, they still defended intelligently. Against teams like those, it sometimes is all you really can do, and the Flames did a very nice job of it.
A combination of good sticks and good body positioning helped Calgary limit damage in both games, which helped keep it close. On top of that, 41 blocked shots in the last two games, and you’ll start to see how the attention to defensive details remains very strong. It was also very prevalent in the three losses prior to Pittsburgh and Chicago.
I firmly believe the Flames are doing far more good things than bad right now, and that’s why they need to continue doing what they’re doing. It's easy to get discouraged when the results aren’t coming along with the ride. If discouragement turns into deviation from the plan, that’s when things can really start to snowball, which is why Hartley has been so steadfast in his message to stick with it.
I don’t think it’s being overly simple to say spending more time in the offensive zone than your opponent and defending really well are pretty big precursors to prolonged success. Yes, the Flames need to focus on making fewer mistakes at key times, and yes, they could stand to sharpen up a little of late. But, the fact is, over the last five games Calgary has done the things they need to for success more often than not. If that continues, it’ll start translating into wins, maybe as early as Tuesday against the New York Rangers.