It’s been a dramatic 44 days for the Calgary Flames.
The veteran group led by rookie head coach Ryan Huska dragged themselves out of October with a 2-6-1 record. Good for 31st place in the NHL behind only the San Jose Sharks who were yet to record their first win.
They had just lost a miserable Heritage Classic 5-2 to their northern archrival, the Edmonton Oilers. A team with only one win to their record prior to that game on October 29. Despite the pageantry of the event, the product on the ice could more closely be compared to two starving castaways on a raft fighting for the last pretzel.
Calgary showed up flat and ended the first period down 3-1. Edmonton got the pretzel.
Within hours, Sportsnet’s Eric Francis reported that the organization would be putting a hold on extension talks. A move widely believed to be made by ownership. It seemed that the Calgary Flames had sunk even lower than their miserable 82 game slog in 2022-2023. A 38-27-17 campaign featuring more painful losses than Season One of NBC’s The Biggest Loser.
The calendar flipped and all seemed to change. Hope began to creep back into the picture during a November 1, 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars. General Manager Craig Conroy turned heads the day prior by calling up 2020 first round pick Connor Zary from the AHL Wranglers. Ryan Huska doubled down on the move, letting it be known that the Saskatoon sniper would be deployed with the ice-cold Nazem Kadri, who had one goal and one assist in nine games. The plan was to have Zary spark the 33 year old’s game.
The plan worked. Zary scored a goal on his first shot in his first NHL game. Kadri recorded an assist on the play and finished the night with two helpers.
Three nights later, Huska added the final element to the equation — 23 year old Martin Pospisil, who turned 24 on the 19th, was slotted in on the right side. The ZKP line was born.
The tenacious Slovak has been no slouch since joining the unit. The 6’2” speedster has three goals and two assists in nine games. More interesting is the timing of his points: An early game-tying goal in his first game. Another score-evening marker against Toronto, this time to put the final touches on erasing a 4-1 Leafs lead. The following night he did his part to start momentum in Ottawa with a saucer pass assist to Blake Coleman to get the score to 2-1 Senators. Two nights later, Martin assisted on Zary’s game-winner in Montreal.
The 2018 fourth round pick’s most recent offensive contribution? Earning the Flames a 1-0 lead on the Islanders on a half-break where he patiently out-waited goaltender Ilya Sorokin. Four of Martin Pospisil’s five points have either given the Flames a lead or tied the game up.
Nazem and Connor are now first and second on the Flames in scoring through November with 10 and eight points respectively. Zary’s two goals and five assists puts him in fourth place in November among all rookies in points per game at 0.89. Tied for second place are Buffalo’s Zach Benson (1G 2A) and Brendan Biro (2G), who each have only played a more limited sample size of games.
Since their inception, the line of Zary-Kadri-Pospisil is ranked fifth in expected goals percentage at a startling 78.9% rate per Money Puck. The name of the game for those three is relentless transition. If possession changes in the defensive zone, you can be sure that one of the three is already making a move for space. Since their first deployment on November 4, the Flames have gone 5-2-2 — Good for a .666 points percentage over that span.
Nothing Good Lasts
The Flames now enter another period of uncertainty. Maintaining their pace since November 4th will leave them with 90 points by season’s end and their myopic saviour Connor Zary missed Wednesday’s game with a lower body injury. The group will have to find a way to pick up their pace without him.
His absence contributed to a fairly toothless offence en route to a 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators. The former Kamloops Blazer maintained a calming presence on the power play prior to his departure from the lineup. His poise was sorely missed. The Flames not only went 0-for-4 with the extra man — they got outscored. A Colton Sissons shorthanded one-timer set the tone at 2:33 that the man advantage would prove to be no advantage at all.
Zary is currently listed as day-to-day. In the meantime, the Flames will have to find a way to start a fire without their newfound spark.