Why The Flames Are Still A Decent Bet For Pacific Division Repeat
Despite an inconsistent start to the year, the Calgary Flames are in a playoff spot at Christmas. Here’s why they can climb higher over the next 50.
Mission accomplished for the Calgary Flames.
Waking up Saturday morning among the top eight teams in the Western Conference, the Flames enjoyed their holiday dinners knowing they met a goal.
A playoff spot for Christmas.
The way it unravelled – from the high drama summer, to the surprisingly hot start, to a pair of extended losing streaks, and a seemingly never ending search for balance and consistency – you might be able to pitch a Hallmark movie out of it.
The clincher was a dramatic 3-2 overtime win against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night. They lost an extra point in OT the previous evening against the Kings in Los Angeles but finished with seven of a possible eight in a four-game road trip that landed them that wild card spot at the break.
But just barely.
In some ways the Ducks game was a microcosm of the Flames season. They were the better team all night but couldn’t score enough to pull away so were left mucking around in overtime.
“When you out-chance them that much five-on-five you should have more than a one-goal lead,” Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter told reporters post-game.
That’s been a common problem. It’s one of the reasons they’re battling for a wild card slot instead of the Pacific Division title right now.
And it was the fourth line and bottom-pairing blueliners scoring the goals on Friday despite outshooting the Ducks 45-23 on the night.
Michael Stone scored his fourth of the year less than five minutes into the game. Brett Ritchie netted his sixth in the second period to set the Flames up with a one-goal lead heading into the final 20 minutes.
Powerplay goals from rookie Mason MacTavish and Jakob Silfverberg forced the overtime.
Rasmus Andersson made sure the Flames met their team goal with his fifth goal of the year in OT.
It was a confidence inspiring road swing with four games in six nights. But it didn’t really answer any major questions. One more than any.
What are the Calgary Flames?
Is this a good team playing below its potential, a middle of the pack squad showing its flaws and sitting right where it should expect to?
Despite massive changes after the loss of two of the three best offensive weapons on last year’s team, I don’t think anyone believes it’s suddenly a bad team.
Here are three reasons I believe they still have a shot at the Pacific Division title:
Strength of schedule
The Calgary Flames had the toughest schedule through the first 30 games or so, factoring in travel, and their quality of competition. That same criteria also suggests they have one of the easiest schedules in the new year.
Yes, they would have to take advantage of that by earning the points. But that’s exactly what they did on that last road trip. Two wins against the San Jose Sharks and another in Anaheim gave them six points they needed both to prove they could beat teams with less external expectations and to climb to within striking distance of the Edmonton Oilers for that last wild-card slot. The loss to Los Angeles Kings was mildly disappointing but that's a tough team on home ice, and that single point combined with the win in Anaheim was enough to push them past the Oilers for now.
The two go head-to-head in the first game back, so buckle up for that one.
If the Flames continue to get points against strong teams and beat the teams below them in the standings, they could go on a nice climb to close out their season.
How many times have you heard Sutter say they need someone to be a gamebreaker or that he needs more from his top players?
Well, he's starting to get it. Jonathan Huberdeau hasn't been putting up the points he expects of himself, and he's been criticized a lot because of the external expectations that come from his massive contract, huge season with the Florida Panthers last year, and the guy he was traded for. Learning a new system under a challenging coach, in a hockey crazy city has the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he's starting to feel it lighten a little and I think it gets better from here.
Huberdeau has said he knows he needs to shoot more. And after a pretty good few examples for the tape in Anaheim, I think he adopts more of that mentality going forward. It will make him less predictable and harder to defend and from there, he could take off offensively.
He's already warming up with a goal and six points in his final four games, and five goals and 19 points in his last 22 contests. Defensively, he's also made major strides and looks to have some chemistry with Nazem Kadri.
Huberdeau isn't the only star player on a heater, with Elias Lindholm playing some of his best hockey recently. The Flames are still seeking the right mix of chemistry up front but things are coming along with guys like Dillon Dube, and Tyler Toffoli producing and a third line of Mikael Backlund, Blake Coleman and Andrew Mangiapane due to break out after being reunited.
Goaltending a position of strength
Jacob Markstrom is and was the first to suggest he needed to make some improvements in his game. His sub-.900 save percentage isn't great but he's making the timely saves more often than not in recent days, and you get the feeling that stat is going to climb over the coming weeks and months.
Dan Vladar has been a stellar backup, showing he's capable of taking on more responsibility when required. He owned the net while Markstrom enjoyed some down time and looked like a guy who may be a future starter. His numbers are more impressive statistically than Markstrom's, but there's no doubt Markstrom is the key to their potential to repeat in the division.
The defence hasn't been consistent but, like the forwards, seem to be finding their stride, so the workload hasn't been too heavy for the Flames backstops.
Either goalie could be a difference-maker in a game that needs one.