The Calgary Flames will try to stretch their season-long four-game winning streak in California this week.
Following their 9-1 loss to Pittsburgh, Bill Peters and Mark Giordano both said the game could be a turning point for the Flames. It looks like the head coach and the captain were right.
In five games since their most lopsided home ice loss in approximately two decades, the Flames have picked up nine of a possible 10 points, losing in a shootout to the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals before winning games against the Maple Leafs and Sabres on the road and the Avalanche and Blackhawks at home.
The team’s play without the puck has improved significantly, as has its play in the defensive zone. It’s led to a lot more time spent playing with the puck, which is one of the reasons why the Flames exploded for 19 goals in the last five games. The Flames entered Tuesday tied with the Avalanche for most goals for in the NHL this season with 52.
In 2014-15, the Flames came from behind to win 10 times in the regular season and three more times in the post-season when trailing through two periods of play. It earned them the nickname “Find-A-Way Flames”. While I hesitate to slap the same nickname on the this edition of the team because I believe this is a much better team than the one that stole so many games four seasons ago, it still fits.
The Flames trailed following 40 minutes in 11 of their first 15 games. Incredibly, Peters’ team is 5-5-1 in those contests. To put the Flames’ five third-period comebacks in perspective, no other team in the league has done it more than twice. The question is, how have they been able to battle back to win so many times this season?
Their 28 third-period goals were eight more than any other team going into Tuesday and their plus-17 third-period goal differential was by far the best in the NHL. Those are two tangible ways to explain it. The intangibles are the head coach’s willingness to make in-game adjustments, the players’ determination and the belief and confidence that the team has built with so many come-from-behind wins.
FAB FIRST LINE
During the Flames’ five-game point streak, the first line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm has produced a whopping 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists). Leading the way last week was Monahan, who on Monday was named the NHL’s first star of the week. The 24-year-old, who will take a season-long six-game point streak into Wednesday, recorded multiple points in all four games last week scoring four goals and adding four assists.
Since the Penguins game, Monahan and Gaudreau have taken a huge step forward in their play without the puck, something that Lindholm has been outstanding at all season. As a result, the talented trio has been almost impossible to stop.
In their first four seasons together, Monahan and Gaudreau benefitted from getting primarily offensive-zone starts and preferable matchups. This season, Peters invested in his top two offensive players by starting them in the defensive zone and against the other team’s top forward lines and top defence pairings way more often. I believe both players have grown as a result.
As for Lindholm, who was taken one spot ahead of Monahan in the 2013 NHL Draft, he was a solid two-way forward during his five seasons with the Hurricanes, but he’s a way better player than I thought.
THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH?
While I wouldn’t call Anaheim, home of Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth for the Flames, a 2-0 victory over the Ducks on Oct. 9 of last season has made it a less miserable place than it used to be. Thanks in large part to Mike Smith’s franchise-record 43-save shutout, the Flames snapped an NHL-long 25-game losing streak at Honda Center dating back to Jan. 19, 2004. Despite dropping a 2-1 decision on Dec. 29 in their second trip to Anaheim last season, the Flames no longer have to answer questions about why they can’t beat the Ducks on the road (thankfully, we don’t have to ask them anymore, either).
The Ducks (6-6-3) certainly don’t look like the team that won five straight Pacific Division titles prior to last season. If it wasn’t for John Gibson, who has to be the early front-runner for the Vezina Trophy, the Ducks wouldn’t even be close to a .500 hockey team.
At forward, while Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry are still effective players when they’re healthy (Kesler is, Perry isn’t), they’re not as dominant as they used to be. With that said, Ryan Getzlaf is still a beast and Rickard Rakell is a stud. On defence, while they’re not as deep as they used to be, the Ducks top-four of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour is outstanding. Manson’s status for Wednesday’s game is uncertain as he is day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
After being bullied by the Ducks for more than a decade, the Flames finally appear poised to fight back. We’ll see on Wednesday.
THREE DAYS IN TINSELTOWN
Following their game in Anaheim, the Flames will make the 45-minute bus trip to Los Angeles, where they’ll soak up the sun for a couple of days between games. Having two days between games on the road is a rare luxury, one that the coaches will use to reward their players with a full day off on Thursday before they return to the ice for what will likely be a lengthy practice at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo on Friday. Because the Clippers will host the Bucks in an NBA game at Staples Center on Saturday afternoon, the Flames won’t be able to skate on Saturday morning.
It has been a tough start to the season for the Kings, so much so that head coach John Stevens was fired just 13 games into his second season. General manager Rob Blake brought in former Canucks bench boss Willie Desjardins as interim head coach.
Making matters worse, the Kings will have to lean on the goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Jack Campbell for the foreseeable future as No. 1 netminder Jonathan Quick is on injured reserve following knee surgery.
While centre Anze Kopitar and defenceman Drew Doughty are two of the best players in the world at their positions, the Kings are a club that relies heavily on aging forwards Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk. If they’re going to turn their season around, the Kings are going to have to get healthy, stay healthy and get more from guys like Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli.
SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS
Before the season started, I predicted that the Sharks and the Flames would finish first and second, respectively, in the Pacific. With the two teams approaching the quarter pole, I still believe that when all is said and done, they’ll be the top two teams in the division.
While the 7-4-3 Sharks haven’t exactly stormed out of the gates, they have too much talent to continue to only win half of their games.
Peter DeBoer is still trying to figure out where two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson fits in on what is arguably the best defence core in the league; one that also features former Norris winner Brent Burns, Canadian Olympian Marc-Edouard Vlasic and the underrated Justin Braun.
My biggest question mark when it comes to the Sharks is at centre. After finishing as the runner-up in the John Tavares sweepstakes, the Sharks were left with Joe Thornton as their first-line centre. When healthy, Jumbo Joe is still an elite playmaker. The problem is the 39-year-old has suffered significant injuries to both of his knees in the last two seasons.
In goal, Martin Jones isn’t off to a great start – his 2.69 GAA is 21st and his .900 SV% is 27th amongst qualified goaltenders. But with the talent in front of him, Jones doesn’t have to play at an elite level for the Sharks to win on most nights.
The Sharks are a well-managed, well-coached team with a ton of talent and I still consider them favourites to win the division.
As for the Flames, while it took them 10 games, they seem to have found their A game, at least at forward and on defence. Despite being tied for 20th in the NHL in team save percentage at .905, the Flames have been able to outscore Mike Smith’s early struggles, and in the last five games have played at a really high level in front of Smith and David Rittich. While the team’s bottom-six forwards haven’t chipped in as much as I thought they would, for the most part, the third and fourth lines have played well without getting rewarded.
If Smith finds his game and players like James Neal, Dillon Dube and Sam Bennett, who have all been snakebitten offensively, start to produce, the Flames could remain right where they are – at the top of the Pacific Division standings.
Saturday’s heavyweight showdown in Silicon Valley sets up to be the biggest game so far this season for both sides.