CALGARY – The last time the Calgary Flames were deemed worthy of Jungle airtime with Jim Rome their coach had to hurl his stick 18 rows into the stands.
This time they did it the old fashioned way.
The Calgary Flames currently lead the Western Conference.
Such words literally haven’t been written this late in the season since January 1993.
It’s a development that clearly snuck up on casual fans around the league, especially some out east who can’t fathom a team placing anywhere close to their beloved Leafs.
Yet, there the Flames sit, third overall in the NHL, just one point behind Toronto.
Heck, even in Calgary fans are a little stunned by the development given the decades of below average to fair teams.
Their rarified surge towards the top is a product of being on a streak that has seen them go 14-5-2 since their 9-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In almost a quarter century of covering this franchise I have never seen a better, more complete, or more skilled Flames team.
No team even comes close, which says as much about this year’s squad as it does about how long this franchise has gone without being a prominent hockey force.
Oh sure, they won the division in 2006 and hooked their way to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 on the backs of Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff.
Since that glorious and highly improbable run, they’ve won one playoff round in the last 13 years.
Prior to catching lightning in a bottle in 2004 the Flames hadn’t won a single playoff round dating back to their lone Stanley Cup triumph in 1989.
In the last 28 years the Flames have advanced past the first round just twice, winning four measly playoff rounds while missing the playoffs 15 of those campaigns.
So, forgive local Flames fans and viewers around the league who aren’t yet believers in this bunch.
The most important ingredient in the team’s success may just be that the players actually believe in themselves. That’s new.
“This is my sixth year here now and this is the first time you kind of have this feeling in the dressing room that you go into games and you expect each guy to do their job and you expect to win the game,” said Sean Monahan.
“We’re a deep team with a lot of skill in here and a lot of different pieces. Within this room we’re big believers in each other and you can tell on the ice.”
Oh sure, it’s 31 games in, and there’s plenty of time for the dust to settle.
But for now every single aspect of their game is in high gear right now.
Almost every single player is trending well, with the lone exception of James Neal. Surely he’ll find his stride at some point.
The goaltending concerns have been alleviated of late as Mike Smith has regained past form to win six straight, while David Rittich continues to be one of the league’s most dependable backups. The team has allowed the ninth-fewest goals.
Defensively the team has tightened up, giving its formidable offence wiggle room on rare off-nights.
Noah Hanifin has settled in nicely with Travis Hamonic, who is not just a team leader but a versatile force following a year of adjustment.
Kids like Juuso Valimaki, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington have fit in seamlessly in a group unafraid to pair rookies together.
Up front Elias Lindholm is every bit as dominant and consistent as Johnny Gaudreau and Monahan, making them one of the league’s top three lines.
Their creativity, speed, puck movement and ability to finish are big reasons why this team never feels it’s out of a game.
Matthew Tkachuk has elevated himself to a point-a-game pace and Mikael Backlund is still one of the best shutdown centres in the league, although he missed the last two games with a concussion and “isn’t close” to returning.
Only three teams have scored more goals than the Flames.
The depth GM Brad Treliving added this summer is paying off in many ways, including Derek Ryan who is filling in admirably for Backlund.
The power play (11th-ranked) is finally respectable this year, helping the club with a belief it is never out of games.
The team leads the league with six third-period comebacks, which many people credit for giving the players the belief they can run with the big boys while playing high or low-scoring games.
Coming back in Columbus from a 4-1 deficit to win 9-6 bolstered that belief.
One night later they won 2-0.
Versatile and plenty resilient following a season in which coach Glen Gulutzan rightfully pointed out that the team didn’t handle adversity well.
It made him heaving his stick into YouTube fame and right onto Jim Rome’s airwaves for rare hockey talk.
Calgary just isn’t used to that type of profile.
Peters deserves plenty of credit for implementing a new system and demanding the accountability that was lacking here last year when the Flames were good enough on paper to make the playoffs.
On the ice was a different story.
The most encouraging sign this team is capable of being a legitimate contender stems from its newfound depth, which includes a brimming AHL affiliate that has been providing the parent club with call-ups able to make immediate impacts.
Alan Quine was the latest such hero Saturday, scoring a late insurance marker against the Nashville Predators less than 24 hours after being called up.
“Any type of national recognition on either side of the border is good,” smiled Peters, throwing the type of praise on his team coaches rarely afford their troops.
“But it’s a good team, it’s an exciting team, it’s a fun team, a team worth watching and a team that can explode offensively.
“People love to see the offence, the goals, the power play has been good here recently, both goaltenders are playing well, everybody is finding a way to contribute and guys coming into the lineup are contributing right away.
“We like the way we’re playing.”