Hockey Canada

Many questions surround Flames ahead of pivotal clash vs. Oilers

CALGARY — As if the recent string of home losses hasn’t been painful enough for Calgary Flames fans, the stage is now set for the ultimate kick in the teeth.

A visit from the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday opens up the very real possibility the Flames’ playoff hopes will be all but officially dashed by their hapless, hated provincial rivals. At home, nonetheless.

Such an indignity certainly wouldn’t come as a shock to Flames faithful, who have watched the team lose seven straight to the Oilers and win just one of their last 11 home dates in regulation.

Frustration is certainly mounting in Calgary where the NHL team is simply too good to be in this predicament. So said Mike Smith after the team’s latest setback Sunday when the Islanders rolled over the Flames 5-2 to end an eight-game losing skid.

After making his first start in a month, Smith lit a fire under his teammates for yet another uninspired start that saw the hosts down 2-0 less than three minutes in. He said the team’s problem of late is between the ears, where he insists everyone has to decide to start contributing more.

“Every guy has got to play out of their comfort zone,” said Smith, who admitted he was a tad nervous and certainly not 100 per cent in his return from a lower-body injury.

“Our top guys have got to do the little things it takes to win and block shots and chip pucks, and our bottom-six guys have got to contribute offensively and do the little things also. We can’t have any passengers if we’re going to right the ship here and make a big push.”

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It’s well documented his team’s bottom-six forwards have been a massive disappointment this season, but Smith raised eyebrows suggesting the team’s snipers need to get grittier.

With 78 points, 12 games left and all their challengers holding games in hand, it’s generally agreed the Flames will need to win eight or nine of their remaining tilts, which is especially daunting given seven are at home where the team is a humiliating 14-16-4.

While the general consensus is that the team has trouble scoring at home (witness the 50 saves Henrik Lundqvist made here last week and the 50 stops Islanders upstart Chris Gibson made Sunday), a dive into the stats shows it’s the goaltending that’s been the problem at home.

Despite allowing four shots less a game on Flames goalies at home, their save percentage at the Dome sits at .896 this year. Not playoff material.

On the road, Flames goalies have stopped 92.1 per cent of all shots, which goes a long way towards explaining the team’s 20-10-6 road mark.

Why they can’t bring their road intensity home has been baffling all season, prompting Gulutzan to interrupt their 20-minute practice on Monday with choice words followed by the question, “How are we going to start tomorrow’s game?”

It will be fascinating to see the answer. And that’s where the Flames are at these days, with more questions than answers.

The coach is clearly sick of being asked about the team’s inability to start better, play well at home or respond favourably to the pressure and immediacy of the situation.

He’s getting testy, uncharacteristically challenging reporters and their questions.

The task at hand might be made even harder without Matthew Tkachuk, a player who has built his reputation on doing all the little things it takes to win games. Tkachuk missed practice Monday after his head crashed heavily into the boards Sunday night after getting tangled with Mathew Barzal and falling backwards with five minutes left.

He didn’t return due to concussion protocol and was nowhere to be seen Monday. Gulutzan said Tkachuk’s status would be updated Tuesday, along with Mikael Backlund and Sean Monahan who also missed practice for “maintenance.”

Terrifying times for the coach, the Flames and their fans, who all sense the rocky month they’ve experienced without Smith could ultimately be their undoing.

Truth is, it’s what they do from this point on that is far more important – a message the coach can’t seem to hammer into the lads forcefully enough.

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March 13, 2018

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