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Flames in unfamiliar territory at quarter point of season

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Calgary Flames

The NHL quarter pole. Thanksgiving for those south of the border (player ex-pats and their adopted brethren north of it, too). These things in tandem have become a measuring stick of sorts. The Calgary Flames are one of the league’s most positive surprises through 20 games.

As annual a tradition as turkey and stuffing is the suggestion that teams in a playoff spot during this football-frenzied face-stuffer of a holiday makes the playoffs more often than not.

In that case, you may want to place your bets on the Calgary Flames. They sit atop the Western Conference standings at 12-3-5, lead the league with a plus-30 goal differential, and have a top-five points percentage. Flames goaltenders have seven shutouts in those dozen victories and the backup – who owns two of them – has made five starts and hasn’t lost in regulation.

Honestly, if you say you believed all (maybe any) of those things would be true at this stage of the season, you’re either lying or have a functional crystal ball.

And the impressive numbers don’t stop there. The Calgary Flames are advanced-stat darlings under head coach Darryl Sutter so far. They’re the top Western team – third overall – in the NHL’s SAT% possession metric. Same goes for their ranking in Corsi, for those who prefer their numbers from Natural Stat Trick. They’re also top 10 in expected goals for and high danger chances.

In terms of stinginess (our new word for checking, not defence), the team isn’t allowing many scoring chances against, including the high-danger areas.

“I think everyone’s done a great job. We had a full training camp with Darryl. He really put his style of play into the way we play, and the structure of everything,” starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom said on Thursday before the guys gobbled up some turkey together.

“It’s a very detailed game. Guys are blocking shots and clearing rebounds and keep making sure the shots come from the outside.”

Those details definitely make things easier on the goaltenders.

The possession game makes the need to do those things much less frequent. Markstrom has faced fewer than 30 shots in 10 of his 15 starts. In five of those, he’s seen less than 25.

It was interesting that a pair of former Vancouver Canucks, Chris Tanev and Markstrom, were out talking to the media on Thursday considering the turmoil taking place in their former city. Guys like Brock Boeser are hearing their names in the NHL trade rumours and veterans like J.T. Miller aren’t sure if the team is buying in over in that locker-room.

In Calgary, there’s no question there has been heavy buy-in. From Johnny (200-foot) Hockey to Oliver (Can’t Scratch Me) Kylington, the team’s most talented offensive players are also making a difference on the other side of the puck.

“When you’re winning, obviously it’s easier to buy in,” said Tanev. “But I think that’s the way you have to play, regardless. You can’t give up 25-30 chances against and expect to win every night. Obviously we have two really good goalies and they’re capable of stealing games for us. And they have done that this year. But we need to play the right way and have the right mindset going into games. We don’t need our goalie to make 10-12 amazing saves. Maybe two, three, four really good saves and we can take care of the rest.

“I think it starts with competing and battling and playing the right way.”

The hot start, though, is only as good as the Calgary Flames can finish. It ranks fourth all-time for Flames points through the first 20 games of a season, as per NHLStats.

But of those top-five point gathering groups, only the 1988-89 Calgary Flames celebrated with a Stanley Cup.

The 1993-94 club blew a 3-1 series lead in the opening round of the playoffs and lost to Pavel Bure and the Canucks.

In 1978-79, the Atlanta Flames only earned  60 points the rest of the season and lost both games in the best-of-three preliminary playoff round to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And the team that earned the most points through the first 20 games, the 2001-02 Calgary Flames? They didn’t even make the playoffs. An epic collapse saw them win just 19 (!) of their last 62 games and miss the post-season for a sixth straight time.

Even a Rocket Richard and Art Ross Trophy season from Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla wasn’t enough to keep that team from a total tanking.

“It doesn’t really mean anything until March,” said Markstrom of the current Calgary Flames success. “It’s good. I like to win, and it’s fun that we’re winning …

“It’s a good start, but that’s all it is. We’ve got to keep pushing. It can turn quick. We’ve got to keep this up for months to come.”

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