Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eight From 80 Feet: Gaudreau Top of his Class, Hiller's First Period Misery, and More...

It's the third edition of a new content feature -- Eight from 80 Feet.

Comprised of a blend of anecdotes, recaps, statistics, analysis and maybe an opinion or prediction sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames.

1. Empty Net Magic 

In 16 games this season, Calgary has pulled its goalie late in the game in an attempt to tie the game -- and it's proving to be quite a successful tactic. In that scenario, which adds up to a combined playing time of 24:55, the Flames have scored six goals while only surrendering five. 

While going plus-one in that scenario is astounding, equally impressive if not more amazing is twice scoring two goals in the late going with the goalie pulled and going on to win. First they did it on Nov. 22 against New Jersey. As impressive as a feat as that was, it came at home against one of the NHL's poorer clubs (which yesterday fired its coach) and it came against the Devils back-up goaltender. When they did it a second time in the span of a month last Tuesday in Los Angeles against Jonathan Quick and the defending Stanley Cup champions, that was remarkable. Prior to this season, scoring twice with the goalie pulled had never happened in Flames franchise history. 

Flames Scoring Leaders - Extra Attacker Goals:

Jiri Hudler 2-2-4
Johnny Gaudreau 2-1-3
Mark Giordano 0-3-3
Curtis Glencross 1-1-2
Dennis Wideman 1-1-2
Lance Bouma 0-1-1
TJ Brodie 0-1-1
Kris Russell 0-1-1
Sean Monahan 0-1-1

Other interesting facts:
  • All six goals have come even strength (so 6 on 5)
  • Hudler is the only Flames player that has been on the ice for all six goals. Glencross and Giordano (5) are next, followed by Brodie and Monahan (4), and then Gaudreau (3)
  • Flames hold a 25-5 edge in shots
  • Flames hold a 43-13 edge in shots attempted (shots on goal + missed + blocked)

2. Twenty Minutes Changes Everything

The ebb and flow of sports can sure be something else. Watch the replay of Mark Giordano's overtime goal against Jonathan Quick and you can feel the emotion in your living room. The huge smile, the arms in the air in jubilation and the emphatic fist pump from Giordano. The celebratory hug from Johnny Gaudreau. The mob scene that immediately followed as players cleared off the bench. Bob Hartley's non-typical euphoria as he watched the goal go in, the hand shakes with his assistant coaches. (Of course, on the other side, you have Quick smashing his stick across the goal post in anger.)

It's amazing how in the span of about 20 minutes in real time, the whole mindset of where the Flames were at psychologically, heading into the break, changed 180 degrees. On the cusp of a nine-game winless skid and being five points back of the Kings, Calgary instead goes into the three-day Christmas layoff on a win and just two points back of Los Angeles and that final playoff spot.

Did that furious rally change the fact Calgary was outplayed much of the first two periods? No. But maybe, just maybe, a bit of good luck to balance out some of the bad luck experienced lately will turn out to be a pivotal point in this season and get the Flames back headed the right direction.

3. Johnny Gaudreau - Top of the Class

If you don't yet know the story of how Johnny Gaudreau -- ranked 193rd by Central Scouting, ended up being plucked by the Flames in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, 104th overall, now is the time. You can read it right here as wonderfully told by Scott Cruickshank of The Calgary Herald. It reads like a great mystery novel.

Meanwhile, Gaudreau continues to climb up the rankings in that draft class. His first NHL hat-trick against the Kings gives him career totals of 11-17-28 in 36 games. That moves him past Sven Baertschi among others into 17th in career points. Not bad for just 36 NHL games. Everyone ranked above him has played at least 70 games with 10 of the 16 having played in over 140 games.

If you even out the playing field for that 2011 draft class and sort on a per-game basis, he ranks first in goals, first in points and second in assists. Yes, safe to say the Flames have quite the steal on their hands. Take a bow Jay Feaster and Tod Button.

Points Per Game:

1. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.78 (4th round, 104th)
2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins EDM, 0.72 (1st round, 1st)
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.67 (7th round, 208th)
4. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.67 (1st round, 2nd)
5. Brandon Saad CHI, 0.60 (2nd round, 43rd)
6. Nikita Kucherov TB, 0.58 (2nd round, 58th)
7. Ryan Strome NYI, 0.55 (1st round, 5th)
8. Mark Scheifele WPG, 0.50 (1st round, 7th)
9. Jonathan Huberdeau FLA, 0.49 (1st round, 3rd)
10. Vincent Trocheck FLA, 0.49 (3rd round, 64th)

Goals Per Game:

1. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.31
2. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.27
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.27
4. Nikita Kucherov TB, 0.26
5. Boone Jenner CBJ, 0.24

Assists Per Game:

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins EDM, 0.48
2. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 0.47
3. Ondrej Palat TB, 0.41
4. Gabriel Landeskog COL, 0.38
5. Brandon Saad CHI, 0.37 

4. Tall Task Ahead - The Wild West

The good news for the Flames is despite that eight-game winless streak, they remain just two points back of the Los Angeles Kings, who hold the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference. At Christmas a year ago, Calgary was 11 points back.

The bad news is the Kings are on a pace for 96 points, which makes that the current standard for what teams might need to achieve points-wise to get into the post-season dance -- and that's five points more than last year when St. Louis squeaked in with 91 points.

How do the Flames get to 96 points? Well, it ain't going to be easy. You're looking at picking up another 57 points over the final 46 games, which will require going 11 games above the NHL's fake .500 mark. e.g. 26-15-5. 

As I see it, Calgary has to catch at least one of:
  • San Jose (4 points up, 1 game in hand) 
  • Vancouver (3 points up, 3 games in hand) 
  • Winnipeg (4 points up, 1 game in hand) 
  • Los Angeles (2 points up, 1 game in hand) 

Meanwhile, the Flames need to stave off all of:
  • Minnesota (4 points back, 4 games in hand) 
  • Colorado (5 points back, 2 games in hand) 
  • Dallas (6 points back, 3 games in hand).

While it is possible, it is one very, very steep mountain to climb. If nothing else, Flames fans can take solace in the fact that as worked out by Brad Robertson (@BradRobertson29), if the Oilers continue to play at the pace they've been playing at for their first 35 games, Calgary would have to go 2-39-5 to end up below Edmonton in the standings.

5. Playing From Behind - Constantly

The Flames inability to score first and play from in front is making life awfully difficult on the club these days. In this recent stretch of nine games, Calgary has only scored first twice and during that stretch of over 540 minutes, the Flames have led for only 12:02. In fact, the Flames have not led in any of the games for longer than five minutes.

Calgary's three leads have been:
  • 3:01 versus San Jose on Nov. 26
  • 4:45 at Buffalo on Dec. 11
  • 4:16 at Chicago on Dec. 14

The Flames have led after the first period only five times all season, which is tied for second-last in the NHL with Edmonton. Only Montreal -- with four, have had fewer first period leads.

In a related stat, Calgary has scored the third-fewest first period goals with 17. That is ahead of only Buffalo (14) and Montreal (12).

6. Pillow Fight of Alberta - Potential Trap Games

These two upcoming games with the Oilers -- Dec. 27 and Dec. 31, set up to be tricky ones for the Flames as the pressure is all on them at this point. Edmonton is on a well-documented run of futility with just one win in their last 20 games. That 2-1 victory over San Jose has been sandwiched by an 11-game winless skid on the front end and most recently, an 8-game victory drought. How bad is it? Consider that since Remembrance Day, the Edmonton Eskimos have just as many wins as the Oilers.

However, with the exception of the most recent 5-1 spanking at home to Arizona, Edmonton appears to be a more emotionally invested team and I'd argue they're playing better hockey under interim coach Todd Nelson. Here's some proof of their improved play lately: The six games prior to the Coyotes loss on Dec. 23 were made up of two losses in extra time, and four losses that were each by a margin of only one goal if you exclude empty net goals that occurred in two of them.

The key for Calgary will be to get a lead on the Oilers as they haven't had nearly the same success as the Flames in coming from behind in the third period. While Calgary has gone a remarkable league-best 7-11-1, the Oilers are a meagre 0-17-1 in the 18 games in which they've trailed after two periods.

7. Avoiding the Post-Christmas Blahs

The win against the Kings was very reminiscent to the dramatic come-from-behind victory last season against St. Louis in the last game before Christmas. Described by many as the most exciting game at the Saddledome last year, Giordano scored the tying goal with five seconds remaining and in a shootout, Joe Colborne scored the deciding goal in the 4-3 win over the Blues.

However, the layoff over Christmas last year successfully killed any momentum from that game as the Flames proceeded to go on a dreadful and historic goal drought starting right after Christmas. During the four-game homestand that immediately followed, Calgary was outscored 10-1 with Sean Monahan the only player to hit the scoresheet. Here's a flashback to what I was writing a year ago during that rough patch.

It's hard to fathom another dry spell offensively like that one considering the opponent in two of the next three games is Edmonton, which has given up 15 goals in its last three games.

However, Calgary needs some of its slumping forwards to catch fire. During the last nine games, Gaudreau and Giordano have combined for 10 of Calgary's 17 goals. The rest of the team only has seven.

8. Jonas Hiller - First Period Misery

Lost in the win over Los Angeles was several clutch saves by Jonas Hiller in the third period, which kept the Flames within striking distance. Also, the Swiss veteran made another couple dandy stops in overtime, which kept the game going.

But it's not been the third period that's been the issue for Hiller lately, it's been his play in the first period as he's shown a problematic propensity to surrender an early goal. In fact, he's given up at least one first period goal in 11 of his last 13 starts. Tuesday, it was the first shot of the game that went in and he simply didn't look ready for the harmless-looking wrist shot from the sideboards that fluttered right past him. The deflating effect goals like that have on a team is palpable.

During Hiller's last 15 games, made up of 13 starts and two relief appearances, here is his save percentage by period:
  • First period, .883 (14 GA on 120 shots)
  • Second period, .879 (17 GA on 141 shots)
  • Third period, .946 (6 GA on 112 shots)

I fully expect Hiller to get the start again on Saturday against Edmonton. If he can address his first period jitters and if the Flames can score early, those two rare things of late could be the real key in getting a vital six-game, 14-day home-stand off to a good start. I would suggest Calgary needs to pick up a minimum of eight points and probably nine or 10 points to maintain a realistic shot at making the playoffs.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Last Minute Shopping: Flames Players Gift List - From bubble wrap for Lance Bouma to a Yanic Perreault instructional video for Markus Granlund to salary secrecy for Deryk Engelland. It's my light-hearted look at the Christmas (or Boxing Day sale) wish list for various Flames players.
  • Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Flames Season For What It Is - Calgary's season has been a lot of things but boring hasn't been one of them. A hot start has been followed by a cold middle with what's next very much a mystery. Keep in mind that in 2004, the Flames nearly missed the playoffs yet went to the game seven of the Stanley Cup final. So you just never know.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: PK is Killin' It, Pre-Christmas Exam and More - A round-up of eight thoughts on the Flames from the past week, including a rubric for their eight-game pre-Christmas exam, Giordano's flirtation with NHL MVP, and a close-up look at Calgary's bizarre success with their goalie pulled.
  • Bennett Happy With How His Recovery is Going - The Saddledome has turned out to be a pretty exciting workout facility for injured prospect Sam Bennett, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. He spoke about how his rehab is going, what his timeline is and the excitement around how the Flames are playing and the club's bright future.
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.

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