Flames Thoughts: Could Calgary be next Canadian team to win Cup?

Flames-Giordano-celebrates-goal-with-Lindholm

Calgary Flames' Mark Giordano, right, is congratulated by Elias Lindholm after scoring. (Jeff Roberson/CP)

Calgary’s once-comfortable seven-point lead atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference is down to three heading into games in Vegas and Arizona.

Here are some thoughts on where things stand for the Flames as the stretch run heats up.

TRIBUTE TO NO. 12
Jarome Iginla spent 16 seasons in Calgary and is the Flames’ all-time leader in games played (1,219), goals (525) and points (1,095). Even though he didn’t win a Stanley Cup during his soon-to-be hall of fame career, he probably should have in 2004 (it was in). He is, in my opinion, the greatest player in franchise history, so it was only fitting the team retired his iconic No. 12 in what was an outstanding ceremony at Scotiabank Saddledome last Saturday night. Iginla is just the third player to have his number retired by the team, and his banner will hang between Lanny McDonald’s No. 9 and Mike Vernon’s No. 30.

From start-to-finish, from top-to-bottom, the Flames did a first-class job honouring the great Iginla. As a matter of fact, when more than 15,000 Iginla t-shirts — which had to be draped on every seat inside of the Saddledome as a keepsake for fans in attendance — didn’t arrive at the arena until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Calgary Sports and Entertainment President and Chief Operating Officer John Bean, Vice President of Sports Properties Sales and Marketing Gord Norrie and countless others pitched in to get the “C of Red” ready for fans and for Iggy’s big night. Now that’s teamwork.

The highlights of the night for me were hearing my predecessor, Peter Maher, emcee the ceremony. The Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster called every single one of Iginla’s games with the Flames and was the perfect person for the job. Having Lanny McDonald voice the tribute video was absolute genius and clearly touched Iginla. Craig Conroy told some wonderful stories about his former linemate and even roasted him a little. So good. Last, but not least, Jarome’s speech was both honest and humorous. It was from the heart. It was Iginla.

I have been told by a number of people that Flames Vice President of Communications Peter Hanlon played a huge role in making Jarome Iginla Night happen, so a huge round of applause for him and everybody else involved.

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MINI SLUMP
Going into last Saturday’s game against the Wild, the Flames were the hottest team in the NHL, in the midst of a season-long win streak of seven games with what looked like a comfortable seven-point lead atop both the Pacific Division and Western Conference. Three days, two Flames losses and two Sharks wins later, Calgary’s lead on San Jose is down to three points, with the same number of games played.

In the Flames defence, if not for the stellar goaltending of Devan Dubnyk — who stopped 35 of 37 shots and was the game’s first star in the Wild’s 4-2 win on Saturday — and of Frederik Andersen — who made the exact number of saves on the exact number of shots and was the game’s second star in the Maple Leafs’ 6-2 triumph on Monday — Bill Peters’ team would probably have two, three or four points more than they do.

While Mike Smith and David Rittich were out-played by the guys at the other end of the ice in both games, goaltending wasn’t the Flames only issue versus the Wild and Maple Leafs. After stringing together solid defensive games against the Coyotes, Islanders (twice), Ducks, Senators and Devils, the Flames played a little loose in front of their goalies versus Minnesota and Toronto. At the opposite end of the ice, most of the team’s top-six forwards have struggled to produce since the team returned from a nine-day hiatus at the end of January.

The Flames are still in the driver’s seat, holding a three-point lead on the Sharks in the fight for first place in the Pacific Division and Western Conference with 16 games remaining. But they’re going to have to tighten up defensively and get more production from their top-two lines if they hope to win their division for the first time since 2005-2006 and their conference for their first time since 1989-1990.

MIXING AND MATCHING
With the top-six struggling to score and looking a little stale of late, Bill Peters did some experimenting at practice on Tuesday. Here’s what the forward lines and defence pairings looked like:

Gaudreau-Monahan-Tkachuk
Mangiapane-Backlund-Lindholm
Bennett-Jankowski-Czarnik
Frolik-Ryan-Hathaway
Lazar

Giordano-Andersson
Hanifin-Hamonic
Brodie-Prout
Fantenberg-Kylington

The Flames’ bench boss did say following practice that he may or may not stick with these combinations in Wednesday’s game against the Golden Knights. Speaking to some of his players, I suspect he will, at least to start.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

CANADA’S CHANCES TO CAPTURE THE CUP
Monday night’s marquee matchup between Calgary’s second-overall Flames and Toronto’s fifth-overall Maple Leafs got me thinking about which team has the best chance to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back to Canada for the first time since the Canadiens did in 1993. It’s hard to believe that it has been more than a quarter-century since a Canadian team captured the Cup, isn’t it?

Here’s how I’d rank each of the seven Canadian teams’ chances to win it all this season.

1. Calgary Flames
Before you start calling me a homer, please hear me out. Choosing between the Flames, Jets and Maple Leafs was tough. Really tough. Truth be told, if Winnipeg was healthier and Toronto didn’t play in what is by far the best division in the league, I’d have them ahead of Calgary on this list.

If the Flames finish first, they would probably face one of the Stars, Wild, Coyotes or Avalanche in the first round. While I’d like their chances to win a best-of-seven series versus any of those teams, I’d rather face the Coyotes or the Avalanche instead of the Stars or Wild. In addition to getting what I would consider an easier first-round matchup than the Sharks and Golden Knights would get having to play each other, here are the other reasons why I decided to put the Flames first.

On defence, I love the team’s top-five. Mark Giordano is the leading candidate for the Norris Trophy and a player who brings out the best in his partner, whether that be veteran T.J. Brodie or rookie Rasmus Andersson. The second pairing of Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic, with a few exceptions, has been superb all season. Peters has a plethora of options for his third pairing with Brodie or Andersson.

Rookie stud Juuso Valimaki has been dominant in the AHL since recovering from a high-ankle sprain and should be back in the NHL soon. Veteran Michael Stone, who has missed more than half the season with a blood clot, has been sent down to the Stockton Head for conditioning. Oscar Fantenberg, acquired from the Kings at the deadline, has fit in nicely in his first three games with the Flames. Rookie Oliver Kylington and veteran Dalton Prout are also options. The Flames have as much depth on defence as any team in the league.

At forward, while Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk have cooled-off considerably since the team returned from their nine-day break, I can’t imagine they’ll struggle to produce points for much longer.

Points-per-game before 9-day break After 9-day break
Gaudreau 1.43 0.73
Monahan 1.2 0.67
Lindholm 1.14 0.93
Tkachuk 1.12 0.33

The good news for the Flames is that their bottom-six has been fantastic since returning from the all-star break and bye week. If the first and second lines can get going and the third and fourth lines can stay going, Peters will have the luxury of being able to roll four lines which is a huge advantage in a playoff series.

The biggest question mark for most fans is in net. While their numbers aren’t great, I am more comfortable with the tandem of David Rittich and Mike Smith than most people are, simply because when Smith has struggled, Rittich hasn’t. When Dave hasn’t made as many big saves, Mike has. If the Flames are going to go deep, chances are, they’re going to need both their netminders to get hot at the right time. Here’s the thing: I think you could say the same thing about the other top teams in the conference. While the Flames team save percentage this season is only .901, the Sharks’ Martin Jones is at .897, the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck is at .911, while the Predators’ Pekka Rinne is at .914.

2. Winnipeg Jets
Before the season started, the Jets would have been at the top of this list. Unfortunately for the Jets they’ve had trouble staying healthy, especially on defence, and Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t been as good this season as he was last. Up front, the Jets have a great mix of speed, skill and size. Winnipeg’s good when healthy on the back end, but right now, that isn’t the case. The injury to Josh Morrissey leaves a huge hole and the Jets look like a completely different team with and without Dustin Byfuglien. If Paul Maurice’s squad can get healthy and stay healthy, they have as good a chance as any Canadian club to capture the Stanley Cup.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs
From top-to-bottom, I think the Maple Leafs are the most talented team in Canada. They have an elite goaltender in Frederik Andersen. With John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, they are as deep down the middle as any team in the league. They have a skilled group of wingers led by Mitch Marner. While I don’t love their defence core, I don’t think that’s their biggest issue. The Leafs would be at the top of this list if they didn’t play in the Atlantic Division, home for three of the top-four teams in the NHL’s overall standings. To get to the conference final, the Maple Leafs are probably going to have to beat the Bruins in the first round and the Lightning in the second. If Toronto is able to get out of its division, the team will have a great chance at winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 52 years.

4. Montreal Canadiens
While the Canadiens don’t have the talent that the Flames, Jets and Maple Leafs have, they have a goaltender in Carey Price who can steal games. They also have a well-coached group of forwards and defencemen that play as fast as almost any team in the league. While in my wildest dreams I can’t see the Canadiens winning the Cup, Price, if he’s right, gives them a fighting chance to pull off an upset in the first round.

5. Edmonton Oilers
While the Oilers have been playing better of late, winning their last three games, I don’t think they have enough time or enough talent to get to the playoffs. Connor McDavid is one of the best players on the planet and Leon Draisaitl is one of the game’s top goal scorers, but with only 16 games remaining, the Oilers don’t appear to be deep enough at forward or on defence to close a six-point gap and leapfrog the three clubs separating them from the two Wild Card teams in the West.

6. Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks have been much more competitive than I thought they’d be this season and are on the right track. Elias Pettersson is a phenom and I can’t wait to watch him in the playoffs. Maybe next season.

7. Ottawa Senators
According to owner Eugene Melnyk, “The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025”. While I’m not sure about that, I am sure about this – they’re all-out this season.

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