Why the Flames are Canada's top Stanley Cup contender

On this edition of After Hours, Scott Oake and Cassie Campbell-Pascall sat down with Mikael Backlund to discuss the Flames' win over the Wild, being drafted by and living in Calgary, and more.

Debate all you want over whether the Calgary Flames are Canada’s best team, but there’s little question they’re currently the country’s best Cup hope.

There’s a difference between the two.

No, this is not a prediction of springtime glory in southern Alberta.

Just a stark declaration that the NHL’s hottest team is indeed worthy of being considered Canada’s top contender.

As of Monday morning, it’s really just a two-horse race, as only the Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs sit amongst the league’s top 16 in NHL standings.

The Oilers can’t be in the conversation until their goaltending stabilizes, while the Jets and Canucks will both likely spend the rest of the season scrapping for an outside shot at playoff spots.

The Flames sit four points back of the Leafs with a game in hand, sitting ninth and sixth in the league, respectively.

Head-to-head, the two clubs split their season series, with the Leafs holding the edge in play both nights.

And while no one doubts that the Leafs have the star power to score with anyone, the reality is Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and co. are almost certain to start the playoffs in one of the two Florida cities.

Gulp.

Should Jack Campbell be able to hold the fort against either of those two juggernauts, the second-round assignment would almost certainly open in Florida once again.

A murderer’s row of early obstacles.

It’s hard to fathom the Leafs having enough depth up front, or on the back end, to get by the two-time defending champions in Tampa as well as the league’s deepest and highest-scoring club in Sunrise.

The Flames’ road to playoff glory likely wouldn’t include facing the class of the Western Conference – Colorado – until the third round of the playoffs.

Sure, there is still a lot of hockey to be played, and things are tight enough in the West for the Flames to drop significantly from tops in the Pacific Division, where they now sit.

However, the depth of the Flames, combined with its world-class netminding and air-tight defensive game, makes it unlikely the Flames could tumble right out of a playoff spot.

Once in the playoffs, the Flames’ size should bode well, as additions like Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov make them a formidable force alongside big bodies like Milan Lucic and even Brett Ritchie.

On top of the Vezina-calibre numbers posted by Jacob Markstrom, the Flames are the second-stingiest team in the league at 2.43 GAA, sporting a fourth-best goal differential of +53.

The Leafs are at +43, while allowing 25 more goals against, which is almost half a goal more per game.

If you believe the credo that defence wins championships, Leafs fans are surely hoping the club will add to its blue line at the trade deadline.

None of this is to diminish just how dangerous this Leafs club is, but more to point out just how quietly the Flames have risen through the ranks to sit amongst the big boys for the first time in years.

It’s a fascinating discussion for fans of an organization that couldn’t have fathomed being in this position six months earlier.

Flashback to the summer when an off-season of relative activity had locals entering the season concerned, frustrated and worried.

The belief was that significant change was in order for a core that had spent several years being unable to win when it mattered most.

It’s amazing how quickly the perception of a team can change.

The Flames tied a franchise record with its 11th-consecutive win at home Saturday, a stretch that has seen the hosts outscore visitors 53-15.

Dominance.

This stretch, combined with a shockingly solid start to the season, has fans full of optimism and hope, especially considering 18 of the team’s remaining 31 games are at the Dome, where capacity crowds will return starting Thursday when the Habs roll in.

Not bad for a team that had ten games rescheduled due to a Covid outbreak that sidelined 21 Flames players and almost 50 staffers and family members over Christmas.

The forced break actually turned into an advantage for the Flames, as they recovered without significant symptoms and didn’t have to worry about losing any more players moving forward, like the rest of the league did.

The re-jigged schedule also allowed the team to host a seven-game homestand, which it swept en route to the team’s 14th win in its last 17 outings, dating back to a 5-1 romp over the Florida Panthers Jan. 18.

Red hot.

And they’re doing it with a lineup as complete as any in the NHL since Christmas.

Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm are all having career seasons, forming the NHL’s most prolific line this season.

Gaudreau is in the Hart Trophy conversation and Lindholm, who just had an eight-game goal scoring streak snapped, is a frontrunner for the Selke.

The team’s recent success has plenty to do with the emergence of the second line, which has goal-scoring leader Andrew Mangiapane regaining his early season scoring touch alongside Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman.

The momentum the team was gaining through February was bolstered by the recent acquisition of Tyler Toffoli, who has given the team’s third line (and top power play unit) a jolt.

Neither of Canada’s top-two teams has the cap space to make any significant additions before the trade deadline, although both pledge to be as creative as possible to bolster their ranks.

Again, few are ready to put either the Leafs or Flames in the upper echelon of contenders with Colorado, Carolina, Tampa or Florida just yet.

But it sure is better than the alternative for both fans bases to be able to debate just how closely they match up.

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