CALGARY – Only one team in Flames history has had a better start than the one this year’s squad has posted.
The year was 1989, and that team won Calgary’s only Stanley Cup.
Pretty good company.
There’s plenty of promise in terms of how Bill Peters’ team will follow up its 25-12-4 start given the solid footing on which it was built.
On the shoulders of a top line that ranks amongst the league’s very best, a Norris Trophy frontrunner and an emerging goaltender who has taken the league by storm, the Calgary Flames hit the halfway point of the season tops in the Western Conference.
They are this year’s Winnipeg Jets — a team they’ve beaten twice.
Few teams can keep up with the Flames’ scoring prowess, which has seen them jump from 26th last year to third in the NHL.
Only one team (Tampa) has a better goal differential, which is stunning given the Flames turned their season around (and maybe their franchise) following a 9-1 loss at home to the Penguins.
A breakdown of how a city in deep economic depression can feel so good about its team:
THE GOOD: WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Norris Trophy frontrunner Mark Giordano has helped rekindle TJ Brodie’s game, and the conference-leading Flames feel no deficit is insurmountable.
Their power play is vastly improved, their penalty killing unit leads the league with 13 goals, their newfound depth is significant and of all the incredible steps forward various players have taken, no skaters have surged ahead more than Matthew Tkachuk who sits 17th in NHL scoring.
So many things are going Calgary’s way these days.
THE BAD: AN UNDERPERFORMING UFA AND AN AGEING GOALIE
James Neal has four goals, four assists and a team-low minus-12 to show for the five-year, $28.75 million deal he signed in the summer. He’s been a fixture on the second power play unit and the third line, where he’s played with more combinations than a safe-cracker.
Yet, nothing seems to help the man who is sporting a 4.5 shooting percentage and no momentum or bite to his game.
Mike Smith has lost the starting job to Rittich and is now trying to find a way to regain confidence and form as a backup.
A recent 6-0 stretch helped improve his stats, but his 3.09 GAA and .886 save percentage demonstrate how bad his start was while compiling a 12-9-1 record.
Optimists still cling to Neal’s track record, which suggests he’ll eventually turn things around. Smith’s second half could play a big role in how the Flames fare.
TRADE DEADLINE LOOKAHEAD
After decades of hoping simply to challenge for a playoff spot the Flames are now certainly Stanley Cup contenders. GM Brad Treliving will be a buyer on or before Feb. 25 as he looks to add even more depth to a team with as much high-end talent as almost any in the league.
Third-pair defenceman: The uncertain status of rookie Juuso Valimaki’s high ankle sprain has many figuring the Flames will be in the market for a depth defenceman, particularly on the left side. Think rental.
Michael Frolik: The veteran’s agent put him in the trade conversation following a tweet suggesting the coach was trying to run the Czech winger out of town.
That said, his versatility and experience could come in handy for a relatively inexperienced playoff bunch.
Given the newfound depth that has turned Frolik into an 11-minute a night utility player perhaps the team would see merit in relieving itself of the $4.3 million cap hit attached to Frolik’s final year next season. He’s slated to make $3 million in salary next season.
MOST IMPORTANT STORYLINES OF THE SECOND HALF
Can these guys keep it up? The Flames had a solid first-half last year as well, but collapsed in the second half after Smith and several others went down with injury.
Is Rittich for real? Can Gaudreau and his line continue to be amongst the league’s most potent?
Can the team with a league-leading seven third period comeback wins continue to defy the odds with late heroics?
Can one of the league’s healthiest teams remain that way? And if so, can this team continue its success in the playoffs?
Oh sure, fans will be watching the arena storyline closely as city council and the club continue to work quietly behind the scenes on a building to replace the aging Saddledome. But the focal point in a struggling city like Calgary is now on a group of local heroes people are praying can continue to give the city something to cheer about.