FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE
There’s only one reason the Calgary Flames are 3-1 — goaltender Mike Smith, who’s facing an average of 40 shots per game
The standings may say otherwise, but the Calgary Flames are playing no better than they were last NHL season when they won just once in their first four outings.
In fact, this year's team is playing worse. Much worse. The difference is Mike Smith.
Glen Gulutzan pointed out as much Wednesday night in a heated postgame dissection of his troops in which he said he was concerned about the team's battle level, execution, breakouts and puck management, among other things.
The timing of his critique may have seemed odd given the team had just battled back to win a gritty game over the Los Angeles Kings in overtime, posting their third straight victory to open the year 3-1.
However, without Smith's heroics this team could easily be 1-3 or 0-4. Probably should be. The number that should be troubling to all stakeholders is 40, which is the AVERAGE number of shots Smith has faced in the club's four games.
No goalie in the league has been subjected to anywhere near that much rubber.
It's an indictment of the team's defensive play, which Gulutzan said is reflected in how badly they've been out-chanced this season.
To put that in perspective, last year at this time, the club allowed an average of 27 shots against, which is 33% fewer than a squad that should be better in its own zone given the addition of Travis Hamonic and having a goalie who can move the puck as well as Smith.
In each of the past two seasons, the Flames scored 12 goals their first four games. The difference being Smith has only allowed nine in 160 shots, while Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson combined to cough up 14 in 107.
Smith is stopping pucks at an unheard of .950 clip.
Not to harp on Elliott's well-documented struggles, but he opened last year facing no more than 31 shots in his first three games but posted a paltry .873 save percentage to keep the Flames winless unless Chad Johnson won Game 4 in overtime.
Like Miikka Kiprusoff did for so many years here, the netminding is masking so many of the Flames' other shortcomings. That has to change. No team can challenge for 100 points (Gulutzan's goal) allowing more than 40 shots in three-quarters of their games, as the Flames have so far.
The good news is that with a team as deep, speedy and talented as the Flames, it's fixable.
The bad news is that if opponents are allowed to continue peppering Smith (and eventually backup Eddie Lack) with such volume, eventually the dam will break and the Flames will struggle. Or will they? Smith faced more than 40 shots 11 times last season with the Arizona Coyotes behind a porous, young defence and somehow managed to go the first nine without a regulation loss.
All told, in those games, he was 6-2-3, which the Flames would take.
He thrives on being a workhorse.
On paper, this team should be far better than the Coyotes at limiting such shooting galleries, which is exactly what Gulutzan is pushing for.
One might assume the slashing crackdown and increased penalty counts have played a role in the elevated number of shots and chances the opposition has generated.
Not so. Last year, the Flames were short-handed 19 times compared to 15 this year.
This is on the team — a squad that is spending far too much time in its own zone, as Gulutzan lamented.
A similar effort by his bunch on Friday night at home against the Ottawa Senators would be a troubling sign in Gulutzan's eyes.
If Lack starts on Saturday in Vancouver and plays the way he has the past few years, the Flames could be exposed in humiliating fashion for being far too reliant on their goalie.
With all the hype and excitement surrounding Jaromir Jagr in town, Smith probably hasn't been given the due he deserves for the team's division-leading record.
Few probably know his groundbreaking, 43-save performance to snap the 13-year skid in Anaheim was the third-most saves for a shutout in franchise history.
Few also likely realized how big a role he's played thus far, unquestionably the Flames' star in all four games.
No wonder Gulutzan left Los Angeles in a tizzy.
Calgary Flames netminder Mike Smith has had to be rock-solid between the pipes, given his defence corps’ surprisingly inept play this season.