Make no mistake, expectations for the Calgary Flames were high entering this season.
Based on what? Start with the great stretch run at the end of 2016-17 and a trip to the post-season. Add in a good, young core of forwards led by Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and a top five on defence buoyed by the acquisition of Travis Hamonic and the re-signing of Michael Stone that looked as good as just about any. Top it off with the trade for 35-year-old goaltender Mike Smith and it’s easy to see why big things were expected of the Flames this year.
What are fair expectations? The standings quickly let you know that it’s never been more difficult to win on a nightly basis. Thus, earning a playoff berth isn’t guaranteed for any squad.
Following an inconsistent start, the Flames are now on a roll. They entered their CBA-mandated break late Sunday afternoon riding a seven-game winning streak.
It’s not rocket science. During the Flames’ recent winning ways, the club’s top scoring trio of Monahan, Gaudreau and Micheal Ferland has accounted for 32 points. Captain Mark Giordano, the engine of this squad, has points in five of his last seven outings and is playing at an elite level. His partner Dougie Hamilton is riding a season-high five-game point streak.
Then there is the red-hot Smith, who in my opinion belongs in the all-star game and has been this team’s best player. In his last five outings he is 5-0 with a 1.79 GAA and a .946 save percentage. He’s an incredible competitor who I have truly enjoyed watching go about his day-to-day business. He despises losing. It is so evident and really rubs off on this relatively young group.
Here is a stat that might impress me the most. The last time the Flames gave up more than three goals in a game was on Dec. 4 against Philadelphia — a span of 18 contests. While January has featured the best of times, December produced a very uneasy feeling around the group thanks to those lofty pre-season hopes. They were playing well but the results weren’t there, leaving some to feel like something was missing.
In the tough times, leadership, respect and belief get you through. Understanding that the NHL season is a marathon not a sprint is easier said than done when every two points feel like they could make or break you. This group has a terrific architect in GM Brad Treliving and a quality coaching staff led by Glen Gulutzan.
I have known Gulutzan since he played in the WHL in the late 80s and early 90s. You won’t meet anyone who has a bad thing to say about him. For two seasons I have watched ex-players from his former coaching stints embrace him with nothing but admiration and respect. I’ve been in scrums with John Tortorella, who worked with him for one year in Vancouver, and you can clearly hear and see the impact Gulutzan had on him.
The son of a teacher, Gulutzan invests in people. It’s not about him. He understands that players win games. From very early in the process, the veteran players believed that this coaching staff had them playing the right way.
Gulutzan’s steady hand has rarely wavered in his first two seasons at the helm — minus the day that he used two hands to wheel his stick 14 rows into the stands when he didn’t like the way the team was practising. Some thought that move was contrived. No chance. He was as angry as I have seen him publicly.
While the players probably thought the stick launch was funny, I am guessing the message from their coach was loud and clear. Especially because it was delivered beyond the sanctity of the dressing room walls. Most of us don’t like to let people who we respect and care about down. These days the Flames aren’t letting anyone down.