Forget skiing, snowboarding or even playing shinny on frozen ponds in the nearby Rocky Mountains.
In recent weeks, Calgarians have been occupied by another recreational pursuit: playing amateur sports psychologist for the confounding Calgary Flames.
On paper, this group is pretty much the same team that finished first in the Western Conference last season (forward Milan Lucic and backup goalie Cam Talbot are the notable new faces.) But after 20 games, and even though the club sits second in the Pacific Division with a record of 10-7-3, fans simply don’t know what to make of the 2019-20 edition of the Flames.
“Obviously, we feel like we haven’t been at our best,” said Mark Giordano, who won the Norris Trophy last season as the NHL’s top defenceman. “But in the last little bit here, we’ve started to come around. I feel our game is coming.”
Echoing the concern among the fanbase, head coach Bill Peters launched into a tirade last Tuesday after the Flames somehow pulled out a 4-3 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes — thanks mainly to the standout goaltending of David Rittich.
“We have to start playing for each other, playing the right way,” Peters said then. “I don’t think we’re doing that right now. I don’t see that. If we are, I’m missing it.”
The Flames proceeded to knock off the New Jersey Devils 5-2 on Wednesday before falling 3-2 in overtime Saturday to the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
WATCH | Blue down Flames in OT:
“We’re getting better here as we go,” Peters said Saturday, sounding more up-beat. “There’s lots of good things. Lots of things that we can still work on and clean up and just tighten up a little bit.
“It’s heading in the right direction.”
On a positive note, 21-year-old agitator Matthew Tkachuk is living up to his new contract — leading the team in scoring with 19 points. In goal, Rittich has given the Flames a chance to win every night with a goals-against-average of 2.74 and a save percentage of .914. Elias Lindholm continues to shine on the first line with 10 goals.
Much of the concern in Calgary, however, centres on fellow first-liner Johnny Gaudreau, who sits 32nd in league scoring with five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. Last season, the wee winger tied Nathan MacKinnon for seventh overall with 99 points.
On Saturday against the Blues, Gaudreau fought the puck all night — firing just one shot on net and committing seven giveaways in 21:52 of ice time.
“I try not to look at that stuff and play my game,” Gaudreau said of the seven turnovers on the stats sheet. “Obviously, being an offensive player and having the puck on my stick as much as I try to have it on my stick, you’re going to tend to give the puck up every once in a while.”
Peters chalked it up to Gaudreau trying to do too much.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to cut your losses and take what’s there,” Peters said. “But he’s trying to make plays, right? You know he’s going to try to make plays. He forced it a couple times.”
Centre Sean Monahan is trying to play a more complete game this season. And he has been more physical. But Monahan has also been quiet offensively, with four goals and 16 points.
One of Calgary’s strengths is allegedly depth, but the bottom six are struggling, too — no one more than centre Mark Jankowski, who has just nine shots and zero points in 18 appearances.
As a team, the Flames take too many penalties (third in the league). They surrender the first goal 60 per cent of the time. Their inconsistency is rampant from period to period and night to night.
“That’s our biggest area for improvement as a team,” centre Mikael Backlund said. “I think that’s been our issue. We go up and down. Even in games we’ve won, we’ve rarely played a full 60 minutes as a team.”
Despite all that, the Flames are riding a three-game point streak and, to a man, insist they’re on the way up.
“We’re right in the mix,” Giordano said. “We have a great opportunity here, because we feel like we haven’t played our best. But we’re still in a really good spot standings-wise if you if you really look at it.”
Whether that belief in the dressing room can soothe a nervous fanbase remains to be seen.
“We haven’t played our best, but we’re still second in our division,” Backlund said. “I’m going to take that in a positive way. We still have more to give.”