The coach may have changed, but the expectations and measuring stick for the Calgary Flames remain the same.
At the midway mark of the season, it’s still all about playoff success in Calgary.
The way the Flames opened the year, it was starting to look like post-season redemption might not even be an option, as inconsistency and a questionable work ethic had the team falling further and further out of the playoff race.
Enter Darryl Sutter last week, prompting a weekend sweep of the Montreal Canadiens that has turned the team’s attitude and fortunes on a dime.
“We’re a lot sharper right now,” said Sean Monahan of a team that suddenly has some swagger back.
“We’re playing together. When you’re playing faster and moving your feet it’s going to generate a lot more looks and that’s what we’re getting right now.”
The sample size is small, but Sutter’s early tweaks to the system (and attitude) have the Flames tightening up defensively, playing quick, inspired hockey that has seen a feisty forecheck sustain offensive zone time.
And it has allowed them to close the gap between them and fourth-placed Montreal from six to two heading into Monday’s fifth Battle of Alberta.
The newfound hope that comes with Sutter’s return has fans believing once again this team can start living up to expectations in the second half.
Team Record: 13-12-3 (5th in North Division)
Goals for: 2.68 per game (23rd)
Goals against: 2.89 per game (17th)
Power play: 20.8 % (15th)
Penalty kill: 80.7% (12th)
Best surprise: Darryl Sutter
As far as surprises go, they don’t get any bigger than Sutter returning to Calgary 17 years after leading the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final.
A coaching change (the team’s fourth under GM Brad Treliving) was surprising enough, but no one could have predicted it would be the 62-year-old rancher who’d return a full four years after leaving Los Angeles.
Fact is, there couldn’t possibly have been a better fit for either party, as the underperforming Flames needed someone with a history of being able to get the most out of players.
He didn’t have to quarantine, he didn’t require the Flames to finally pay top dollar for its bench boss and he didn’t need time to get up to speed on the team or organization.
He just needed to jump in his truck after finding a farmhand to run his operation in Viking, Alta.
Biggest disappointment: Sam Bennett asking for a trade
Bennett’s play and production mirrored that of most Flames – sub-par – when his agent floated out that the former fourth-overall pick wanted a change of scenery.
It does no one any good when these things are made public, prompting the club to make Bennett a healthy scratch a few times before Sutter came in and gave the 24-year-old a more defined role he is content to fulfill on the fourth line.
The Bennett drama spares Josh Leivo and Dominik Simon from heading up the list of disappointments, as neither free-agent signing has found any traction in the lineup, save for Leivo’s shocking two-goal effort Friday against Montreal.
Biggest question for second half: Can Flames continue to dig out of the hole their poor start put them in?
Two games in, Sutter sure has them feeling like they have the tools and structure to start living up to the lofty expectations that stem from winning the regular-season conference crown two years earlier.
The goaltending has been sublime under Jacob Markstrom, giving the team the most important ingredient needed to piece a significant string of wins together.
Sutter’s plan to roll four lines should help everyone with the rigorous schedule ahead, as the Flames’ top nine is capable of producing different heroes nightly.
The question is, can they avoid the massive swings in play that formed their identity in the first half?
“I’m not really aware of that other than what I’ve been told or seen,” said a coy Sutter.
“So, that’s why they made coaching changes. I’m going to try to impact that as best I can.”