Early on in Sunday’s seventh win in a row, the Calgary Flames provided an interesting snapshot that helps explain how this team managed to hit the midway mark of the season as the NHL’s hottest club.
All three Flames forwards on the ice – Mark Jankowski, Garnet Hathaway and Andrew Mangiapane – had started the season as a line in the AHL. On the blue line was another Flames farmhand – Brett Kulak – who’d played just 30 games over the last three years with the Flames.
As a group, they dominated the shift.
The organization that hasn’t been able to count on AHL call-ups for the better part of two decades now sits second in the Pacific, thanks to a run fueled in part by youngsters who weren’t on the roster when the season began.
That group includes backup goaltender David Rittich who has gone 4-1-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .932 save percentage since being called up from the Stockton Heat.
The newfound depth of the organization has allowed competent kids to fill significant holes on a roster that otherwise would have counted far too much on the Flames’ top-heavy lineup.
It’s with their help the Flames have been able to ice a far more balanced squad, now capable of guiding them through the inconsistency that plagued the team early on and throughout the last three seasons.
“They’ve come in and they’ve made a difference,” said GM Brad Treliving, who deserves the bulk of the credit for following through on his stated goal of stocking cupboards the organization had left bare for eons. “That’s all part of the growth here. We’re going to need that to continue, but the good news is I think we have more coming.”
The seven-game win streak the Flames enter their five-day break on is a reminder to the rest of the league this team is, in fact, a serious contender.
The off-season acquisition of Mike Smith finally gave the club the type of reliable goaltending it hasn’t had since Miikka Kiprusoff’s second-last year here in 2012. Rittich has done the same, giving the team more confidence it can spell off the veteran workhorse even more down the stretch.
The strong, deep, mobile group of defencemen in front of them has slowly rounded into the form that had some comparing them in the summer to the brilliance of blue lines in Nashville and Anaheim. Over the last month they have finally proven to be worthy of such comparisons, significantly reducing the number of quality scoring chances against as the season has progressed.
The defencemen have done that while returning to being the type of offensive threats that have seen Dougie Hamilton score the game-winner in three of the team’s last five outings. Not bad for a lad dealing with the departure of brother and roomie Freddie Hamilton via waivers.
Mark Giordano also has three game-winners, including an overtime thriller against Chicago that got the streak started on New Year’s Eve.
Johnny Gaudreau is off to the best start of his career (54 points in 45 games) as is Sean Monahan, whose 21 goals includes seven game-winners. Micheal Ferland has found the consistency on their right side to land him 19 goals and give the Flames one of the most formidable lines in the league.
“We’re getting scoring throughout but our top players are our top players,” said Treliving, reminding people success isn’t possible without a backstop. “To me it starts in net. Our goaltenders have been excellent. Thing is, everyone’s going to point to the seven games but I saw a lot of good signs in December when we were getting criticized. Sometimes results lag behind the process.”
Michael Frolik’s jaw injury disrupted the 3M Line’s chemistry, prompting the insertion of Troy Brouwer, who has acquitted himself well alongside Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, who continues to grow as one of the best young players in the NHL. He’s certainly one of the most impactful.
Illustrating the team’s problems early was the fact the Flames didn’t have a single goal from their third or fourth line until Game 16 of the season, which may very well be an NHL record.
Jankowski’s arrival put a merciful end to Sam Bennett’s time up the middle, opening the door for the duo to impact several games ever since, regardless of whether Jaromir Jagr or Hathaway completes their group.
The six-year journey Jankowski took from being a first round pick out of Canadian high school now has him as a full-time NHLer who could score 20 goals despite starting the year in Stockton. He’s also teamed up with Hathaway to help turn around a penalty kill that was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses early.
It’s well-documented Jagr has played his last game with the team as injuries and his advanced age of 45 have conspired against him making meaningful contributions moving forward. However, off the ice he’s been able to help several youngsters, including Gaudreau, who is better shouldering the pressure Jagr felt as a young star.
The early inconsistency that prompted coach Glen Gulutzan to heave his Hespeler into the stands during practice at the beginning of their win streak has given way to a confidence that makes the Flames so dangerous.
That was on display in Tampa last week when they waxed the class of the league, 5-1.
Buoying local hopes the Flames can not only make the playoffs but make some noise this spring is the fact the organization still has extensive depth on the farm, particularly on the blue line where the post-season’s war of attrition typically hits hard.
Talents like Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington also provide the team with the type of assets sellers would be looking for should the Flames entertain the notion of grabbing a rental player at the trade deadline. It’s not out of the question for the Flames to consider being in on talks to nab someone like Mike Hoffman or Max Pacioretty.
Can they catch Vegas atop the Pacific?
It’s possible given the hellacious schedule the Golden Knights have in the second half. After all, the two have yet to meet, leaving them with four meetings, including the last game of the year.
The Los Angeles Kings will continue to be a formidable challenger for the Flames, followed by a long list of threats in the west who will continue to make it hard for the Flames to pull away and lock up a playoff spot.
Flames fans can only hope the team can enter the playoffs on a similar hot streak to the one they punctuated their first half with. One of their big litmus tests will come Saturday when their first game back has the Jets in town for a rare afternoon tilt on Hockey Day in Canada.
A national audience can then assess just how far the Flames have come, and just how far they might be able to go.