Flames Thoughts: Calgary look like contenders entering all-star break

Calgary Flames' Oliver Kylington, centre, of Sweden, celebrates his goal with teammates Andrew Mangiapane, left, and Garnet Hathaway during first period NHL hockey action against the Carolina Hurricanes, in Calgary, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The Calgary Flames enter their mid-season vacation in a fantastic position. They top the Pacific Division by six points and occupy the top spot in the Western Conference as well.

Here are some Flames thoughts as Calgary begins a well-deserved break.

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DOG DAYS

In my opinion, the dog days of the NHL season fall between the Christmas break and the all-star break/bye week.

Almost halfway through what is a gruelling 82-game regular season schedule, most players look forward to getting away from the game for a few days. With that said, getting three, four or five days off at Christmas can be as hectic as it is relaxing for players, especially those who spend parts of two days travelling to see family and friends before returning to work.

Fortunately, for most players, coaches and managers (and broadcasters!), it’s easier to get some much-needed R&R during the all-star break (for those not participating) and the bye week, which this season, the NHL has tied together, giving all 31 teams at least one week off.

Almost every player I asked about the subject admitted that being at their best between the two breaks can be a challenge. I suspect it can really be challenging for players on teams that are comfortably in (or uncomfortably out) of a playoff spot, especially when they‘re playing an opponent that’s more desperate for points.

While the Flames were far from their best in some – maybe even most of – the 14 games that they played between the two breaks, statistically speaking, they were the best team in the NHL between the Dec. 27 and Jan. 22, going 11-1-2.

There’s an old saying, “It’s not how, it’s how many” and the Flames picked-up 24 of a possible 28 points between the two breaks. Very impressive.

BEST IN THE WEST

By nature, I’m an optimist. But I must admit, as much as I liked the Flames going into the 2018-19 season (I predicted they would finish second in the Pacific Division, behind the Sharks), I certainly didn’t see them going into their nine-day break 20 games above .500 and with a six-point lead atop both the Pacific and the Western Conference in my crystal ball. The strange thing is, I don’t even think the team has played to its potential.

At forward, as fantastic as the first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm has been (they are tied for second, eighth and 14th in the Art Ross Trophy race, respectively), I strongly suspect the other three lines will provide the Flames with more consistent secondary scoring in the second half of the season.

Case in point: James Neal.

Neal, who scored at least 21 goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons, only tallied five times in his first 49 games with the Flames. Neal’s career shooting percentage is 11.8. It’s 4.6 per cent this year. That’s unsustainable.

On defence, there’s not much to complain about. Mark Giordano has arguably been the best defenceman in the league this season. The 35-year-old is second in the NHL in points among blueliners with 52 in 49 games and leads the NHL with a plus-29 rating.

On top of that, Giordano’s partner T.J. Brodie has returned to the top pairing and back into form. Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic have been terrific, too.

As good as the rookie pairing of Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson has been, when fellow rookie Juuso Valimaki and veteran Michael Stone return to the lineup – hopefully shortly after the team’s nine-day break – the Flames will have eight NHL-calibre defencemen and the type of depth that’s necessary for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With that said, I still expect Treliving will attempt to add a veteran left-shot D-man before the trade deadline.

In goal, David Rittich has been outstanding. Will he continue to play like a true No. 1 goaltender down the stretch and into the playoffs? Only time will tell, but he’s shown little to no signs of regression. As for Mike Smith, while I may be in the minority, I still believe he will play a role – potentially a prominent one – for the Flames this season.

FIND-A-WAY FLAMES

While the Flames have done a great job of finding ways to win games of late, chances are they’re not going to win many, if any, best-of-seven series with the type of hockey that they’ve been playing of late.

Bill Peters has been preaching to his players for quite some time that they have to tighten up defensively, improve without the puck and be smarter in how they manage games.

Ask yourself this question: if you were a player, would you rather win 2-1 or 6-4?

The answer is 6-4 because the team wins and the player wins with padded stats.

The challenge that Peters faces right now is convincing the players – while they’re winning and accumulating plenty of points – that when the competition gets stiffer and the games get harder, they’ll have to be able to win low-scoring, tight-checking matchups.

Hopefully, the Flames won’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.

HEY NOW, YOU’RE AN ALL-STAR (OR NOT)

The NFL Pro Bowl is a joke. The NBA All-Star Game is awful. The MLB All-Star Game is really good, in part, because there’s actually something on the line. As far as the four major sports are concerned, I would rank the NHL All-Star Game at No. 2.

While I wasn’t a big fan of the game when it was played 5-on-5, I really enjoy it 3-on-3.

One of the great things about the game of hockey is the physicality of the sport. Unlike the MLB All-Star Game, the NHL All-Star Game is basically a no-hitter.

Five-on-five, that is not an accurate representation of the way the game is played. As for 3-on-3, because there’s so much more open ice, there is hardly any hitting in three-on-three overtime in regular season games that matter, so it’s not much different at the All-Star Game.

Three-on-three hockey is way more about speed, skill and puck possession, which is a great way to showcase some of the best players in the world. Personally, I love the overtime format in the regular season so much that I’d love to see the NHL a few more minutes of OT before deciding games in shootouts.

Johnny Gaudreau, with his speed and skill and hockey sense, is one of the best players on the planet in 3-on-3 situations, so it’s no surprise that for the fifth time in five NHL seasons, he’ll represent the Flames at the NHL All-Star Game.

If the league handed out mid-season awards, Gaudreau – who is tied for second in the Art Ross Trophy race with 73 points – would almost certainly be a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and his head coach, Bill Peters, would likely be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award (I get a vote, and he’d be one of the three names on my ballot). Peters will be behind the bench of the Pacific Division All-Stars in San Jose this weekend and should probably have at least one more Flames player on his team.

Mark Giordano is second in the league in points among defenceman and would almost certainly be one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy if it was awarded at the all-star break. While the Flames captain should be participating in his third All-Star Game, the fact that he isn’t could be a blessing in disguise. Giordano is 35 and a nine-day break now could help him in the spring.

Because his left-winger has been one of the best players in the league this season, Sean Monahan hasn’t received the credit that he deserves. Monahan is tied for ninth in the NHL in goals with 27 and eighth in points with 61, which are all-star worthy stats.

Speaking of Gaudreau’s linemates, Elias Lindholm, has arguably been the Flames best two-way forward this season. Lindholm’s previous career high for goals in a season was 17. His previous single-season best for points was 45.

Fifty-one games into his first campaign with the Flames, Lindholm has 21 goals and 58 points. He could be an all-star.

If Matthew Tkachuk played for a different team, he might be on the ice at SAP Center. The same could be said for David Rittich.

I know some fans are bent out of shape because Peters and Gaudreau are the only guys representing the Flames at the NHL All-Star Game. While I understand where you’re coming from, ultimately, if a mid-season break helps Giordano, Monahan, Lindholm, Tkachuk and Rittich recharge their batteries going into the second half of the season, it’s a trade-off that could pay dividends for the Flames this spring.

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