Sunday, December 14, 2014

Entertaining, Compelling, Unexpected: Enjoying the Calgary Flames Season For What It Is

When I buy a book, I don't flip straight to the final chapter to read what happens in the end.

When my favourite TV show is over and they say, "Stay tuned for scenes from next week", I don't stay tuned.

And those movie trailers -- especially the two-minute versions, which reveal way too much of what happens, no thank you. I'll either look away or leave the room.


Because for me, I love a good mystery. Reading, watching television and going to a movie, it's just entertainment and I find it most enjoyable when I don't know what's going to unfold next. I find it most compelling when I can strap myself in, invest myself emotionally and just savor the journey and all the twists and turns in the plot that I know are forthcoming -- some good, some maddening, some agonizing.

When Did Hockey Become So Serious?

Ten days ago, at the one-third mark in the season, the Calgary Flames were 17-8-2.

For the so-called common fan -- Flames jersey on, cold beverage in hand, riding the roller-coaster game by game, it's been as entertaining of a two-month stretch of regular season hockey as this team has played in over two decades.

The Saddledome does not get any louder than it does during a furious third period comeback. It can be deafening. In franchise history -- so we're talking 42 years and counting, seven is the most times in one season the Flames have won a game in which they trailed after two periods.

There's been six of these fantastic finishes already this year with four of them (Nashville, Anaheim, New Jersey, Colorado) happening on home ice before a frenzied crowd of over 18,000. If you were fortunate enough to be at those games, you won't soon forget them.

Then there's the refreshing style of hockey this team is playing. This is not the slow, plodding hockey that we've seen over the years from cap-ceiling editions of the Flames with much greater star power, this blue collar cap-floor group plays the game at high speed. They have a tenacious forecheck, they force turnovers, the defence are active all the time, jumping up into the rush. Is this just a clever way of masking a team's lack of high-end talent? Probably, but it's rarely boring.

That game a couple weeks ago against Colorado, when Calgary came from behind in the third period not just once but twice, was like the close of a chapter.

It's reaching that point in a book or a movie where you're completely satisfied with what's happened yet if you click 'info' on your PVR, you see that there is still over an hour left in the movie. Or you realize that there are still over 200 pages to go in your book.

It's a great start, but you know you're not anywhere near the ending yet so you press on, bracing for the worst, yet hopeful. After all, you've seen the movie Hoosiers, why can't there be a sequel.

Don't Have to be Good to Be Entertaining

You'll notice that no where have I said these first two months have been the "best" hockey the Flames have played in the last couple decades.
  • Entertaining? Yes. 
  • Compelling? Absolutely.
  • Surprising? Stunning is probably more appropriate.

Are even the common fans naive enough to expect the team to finish the year with 18 third-period comebacks? Was anyone really thinking Dennis Wideman was going to score 30 goals? If I asked you four months ago who Josh Jooris was, many would have said he was a clerk at 7-Eleven. Are people suddenly believing 25 goals is a realistic possibility?

My often-far-too-serious friends in the advanced stats community point out ad nauseam that Calgary's shooting percentage is unrealistically high and not sustainable, that the Vezina-worthy numbers early in the season from Jonas Hiller -- who the Ducks dismissed in favour of a rookie in the playoffs last year, wouldn't continue.

It's as if the breaking news is that the Flames rebuild -- less than a year-and-a-half in, isn't complete yet and they still have work to do. No kdding. Thanks for the reminder. These are all true things yet isn't that even more reason to enjoy the unexpected prosperity?

Nothing More Charming Than an Underdog

In 2003-04, Calgary finished 42-30-7-3 to make the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Just five points back was the ninth place Edmonton Oilers. That season the Flames went 4-0-1-1 in six tight games against their provincial rival. If Edmonton would have won the one game that ended in a tie. If just one of the three one-goal Calgary victories (1-0, 2-1, 2-1) would have been a one-goal loss instead, it's Edmonton that makes the playoffs that season instead of the Flames.

The margin was that razor thin yet Calgary got in and went all the way to game seven of the Stanley Cup final before losing to Tampa Bay -- and in the minds of many, they actually should have won the Stanley Cup in game six -- see Martin Gelinas.

As the lower seed in all four playoff series, was Calgary the best team in the NHL on paper that year? Nope. But do you think that mattered in the slightest to the thousands of people, who were celebrating on the Red Mile after every victory. Nope. They found a way and that's all most people cared about.  In fact, pulling it off with the odds stacked against them made it that much more satisfying.

One of the Better Losing Streaks in Club History

The Flames just accomplished something they haven't done in nearly 20 years. They lost four games in a row in regulation time while outshooting their opponent in all four games.

The last time that occurred was November 1995 -- back when Paul Kruse wore No. 12 for Calgary.
  • Nov. 17, 1995 - Lost 5-3 to Stephane Fiset and the Avalanche at the Saddledome, despite a 47-26 edge in shots. Trevor Kidd with the loss.
  • Nov. 18, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Fiset again, this time in Colorado. Outshot the Avs 30-29. Rick Tabaracci with the loss.
  • Nov. 21, 1995 - Lost 3-2 at home to Guy Hebert and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, despite a 34-26 edge in shots. Kidd in net for Calgary.
  • Nov. 24, 1995 - Lost 5-2 to Bill Ranford and the Oilers at the Saddledome. Held a 42-24 edge in shots. Kidd, in relief of Tabaracci, with the loss.

Does this mean fans should be positive about what's now a five-game losing streak after Sunday's 2-1 loss in Chicago? Of course not. They're falling behind early -- they've led for only 11:52 during the past five games, they're being outplayed at even-strength, the goaltending has been shaky, the third defence pairing has been a point of constant consternation.

The shot clock can mask some bigger issues, that's absolutely true. The nature of when shots in a game come -- e.g. when trailing, can skew statistics. So can the quality of shots, etc. However, are there still positive things to take out of this losing streak? Absolutely.
  • They Didn't Give Up - Over the past 19 years, there have been plenty of long losing streaks in which they not only got outscored, they got out-shot also and sometimes badly. Instead of surrendering and passively cruising to the end of the game, they dug in instead and fought back and that's worth something. The result has been the same -- a 'L' and 0 points in the standings, but if you put any stock in the character of a team, you'll gladly takes the group that fights to the finish knowing those traits will benefit the team down the road.
  • They've Been in Every Game - San Jose - one-goal game, Toronto -- essentially a one-goal game. Buffalo - one-goal game. Pittsburgh -- one-goal game into the 18th minute of the third period. Chicago - one-goal game.
  • They've Played Red-Hot Opponents - Let's be honest, they're not exactly losing to the runts of the litter right now. Here is the recent record of the teams that handed them defeats: San Jose (7-1-0 in last eight), the road set backs to red-hot Toronto (9-1-1 in last 11), Buffalo (9-3-0 in last 12), Pittsburgh (6-2-2 in last 10), Chicago (9-1-0 in last 10).

What Comes Next

The rebuild isn't over and I don't know anyone that has made that declaration. People are enjoying the unexpected success and my god, why wouldn't you. It's not like Calgary's got a long rich history of winning that can make Flames fans so choosy. Besides, if you're not going to enjoy the victories, how are you going to be when the losses start stacking up?

Deserved or not deserved, the wins they have so far won't be confiscated, they're already in the books and two points is two points whether it was a Rembrandt in terms of its beauty or not.

Prior to this losing streak, I had elevated the Flames odds of making the playoffs to 25 percent -- and that was probably overly optimistic. I haven't changed my view. The post-season this year remains possible but not probable.

But through it all, take solace in the fact that Sam Bennett is still coming. So is Emile Poirier. So is Michael Ferland. So is Tyler Wotherspoon. Sean Monahan's had a great sophomore year and there's no reason to think that won't be the same a year from now for this year's rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Markus Granlund and maybe even for Jooris, who's unexpected success has epitomized this entire season for the Flames.

Why wallow in the numbers, the underlying stats, that suggest Calgary's not good right now. Instead, enjoy what's happening right now, realizing that this team is only going to get better.

When the Flames played in Chicago on Sunday night, there were graphs that suggested what should happen, spreadsheets that stated what will likely happen, but truth is, anything could have happened and nearly did. The winning goal late in the game comes on an off-man rush after Johnny Gaudreau loses an edge and turns the puck over. That's a pretty random and unlucky event.

You'll remember back on Oct. 15 when the Flames were out-shot 50-18 by the Blackhawks yet won 2-1. It was about as ugly of a way to win a hockey game, yet it was thoroughly entertaining. Last night's game was also fun to watch and this time the shot disparity was much closer at 28-24 in favor of Chicago.

Close, entertaining games should be the theme for this season. Just enjoy it for what it is.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Latest Random Musings About the Flames - Comprised of a blend of anecdotes -- sometimes quirky, recaps, statistics, analysis and with some opinions or predictions sprinkled in as well, it's a round-up of random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Calgary Flames. In this edition, you'll learn at least two things you didn't know before.
  • Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable" The analytics experts are out in full force these days. In their cross-hairs is the explanation-defying Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference. I explain that Calgary can't keep up it's current pace, but nor does it need to.
  • 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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