Saturday, November 21, 2015

At the Quarter Mark and After Thumping Chicago, Eight Reasons for Flames Fans to Smile

Thanks to their best all-round game of the season and capped off by a highlight reel individual effort from Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary reached the quarter-point in the NHL season in style on Friday with a statement win over the defending Stanley Cup champions.

(Quarter point? Yes. In an 82-game season, the quarter point can be either 20 or 21 games. For me, it's 21 as I round up 20.5 games, which would be the true quarter point.)

For a full recap of what shook down in the Flames dramatic 2-1 overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, including reaction from both dressing rooms, here's my game story for The Canadian Press.

Meanwhile, as Calgary (8-12-1) enters a stretch of three days between games just four points out of a playoff spot, here are eight reasons Flames fans should be feeling good about what lies in store for the remaining three-quarters of the season.

Eight Reasons For Flames Fans to Smile

1. Black Hawk Down

Friday was as solid of an effort as we've seen from Calgary all year. The numbers don't lie. The Flames outshot the visitors 37-19 on the night and at even-strength, it was more one-sided at 37-14.

It was the first time in nearly two years Chicago had been held to less than 20 shots. The last time was Dec. 5, 2013 in Minnesota when the Blackhawks were outshot 23-19 in a 4-3 loss.

In fact, it was just the third time in the last seven seasons Chicago had been kept to less than 20 shots while giving up 35 or more. Flames fans will definitely remember the last time it happened too.

The date was February 2, 2013. It was a couple weeks into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and that night's game at the Saddledome was the nationally televised late game on Hockey Night in Canada. After Jay Bouwmeester gave Calgary a 2-1 lead with 35 seconds left in the third period, Marian Hossa stunned the home crowd, scoring on Miikka Kiprusoff at 19:57 to tie it. In the shootout, Patrick Kane was the lone player to score and the Blackhawks, despite being outshot 47-19, improved to 7-0-2. It would end up being the close  st to a regulation loss as they would come in the first half of the season as they started off 21-0-3.

2. Johnny B. Dominant

What more can you say about the uber talented Johnny Gaudreau, who leads the Flames with 20 points.

It was just last weekend that we were marvelling over the 22-year-old's first 100 games and how his 82 points compared to others in Flames history as well as other current NHL stars. Well, the next 100 games has gotten off to a fine start with three points in games No. 101 and No. 102.

So far this season, Gaudreau has been in on 40 percent of Calgary's 50 goals, which if the season ended today would be the third-highest percentage in team history behind Jarome Iginla (47.8 percent in 2001-02, 43.4 percent in 2007-08).

And seriously, how good is this guy when it comes to overtime.

"At three-on-three, Johnny is the toughest player to play against because there's so much room and he has so much speed and he never seems to get tired," said Karri Ramo last night. "If you give that many chances to us, especially that guy, at some point it has to go in. He's a tremendous hockey player."

With two goals and four points, Gaudreau leads the league in overtime scoring.

NHL Overtime Scoring (after Saturday's games)

1. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 2-2-4
2. Patrick Kane CHI, 1-2-3
2. Lee Stempniak NJ, 1-2-3
2. Tomas Tatar DET, 1-2-3
2. Brent Seabrook CHI, 0-3-3

Tied for 15th in the NHL's overall scoring, Gaudreau climbs fourth if you filter that list down to just rookies and sophomores. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up on top of such a list by season's end.

NHL Rookie/Sophomore Scoring (after Saturday's games):

1. John Klingberg DAL, 4-19-23
2. Artemi Panarin CHI, 7-14-21
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov WSH, 7-14-21
4. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 5-15-20
5. Leon Draisaitl EDM, 7-10-17

3. Top Notch Top Pairing

Another positive from last night's game was the return of the old Mark Giordano. Making strong plays in his own end to win puck battles, making smart decisions with the puck, and bursting up ice to join the rush when opportunity knocked.

It was the kind of two-way game we got accustomed to watching on a nightly basis from the Flames captain the last couple years but has only been on display in spurts this season.

Mind you, he still wasn't the team's best defenceman. That distinction belonged to TJ Brodie and what more can you say about the 25-year-old, who eclipsed 30 minutes in ice time for just the second time in his career. His 31:43 -- over half of the game -- was the most ice time in a game since he logged 35:42 the night of the famous brawl in Vancouver two seasons ago.

In this feature I wrote earlier this week in which I chronicled the steps in Brodie's journey from nearly going undrafted to being one of the most dynamic defencemen in the NHL, he talked about how his Dad and longtime minor hockey coach wouldn't let him play forward. So, he decided he'd simply play defence and join the rush all the time. The rest is history.

Against Chicago, you saw that dynamic presence from him once again. He was nearly sprung free on a breakaway in the second period. On another sequence while possessing the puck deep in the Chicago end, Brodie made this smooth behind-the-back bank pass to himself to evade a defenceman, doing so about as casually as you can imagine. If he's still a secret around the rest of the league, he won't be for much longer.

4. Home Sweet Dome

Home cooking had tasted pretty awful to start the season. Calgary lost its first four games at home before beating Detroit 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 23. Then they went and got pounded by Montreal 6-2.

Since that embarrassing debacle that included hats raining down on the ice for Dale Weise's hat-trick, the Flames have been heating up at the Scotiabank Saddledome having rattled off four straight victories -- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and now Chicago.

Breaking down the home schedule so far:
  • Games 7-10: 4-0-0, 12 GF, 6 GA (+6 goal differential)
  • Games 1-6: 1-5-0, 13 GF, 28 GA (-15 goal differential)

After this upcoming three-game trek through the Pacific, the Flames return home for two full weeks. They'll begin December with a five-game homestand in which they take on Dallas, Boston, San Jose, Buffalo and the New York Rangers.

In that game on Dec. 1 against the Stars, Calgary will be looking to making it five straight regular season victories at home for the first time since a five-game streak from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1, 2014.

5. Rapidly Rising

Normally, a .901 save percentage is pretty bad. In fact, it ranks Karri Ramo 39th among 46 NHL goalies. But this has very much been a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of season and if you're Ramo, you take it considering the frightening depths that save percentage has been. At an ugly .868 when October ended, a .914 save percentage for November has helped Ramo inch above the .900 mark for the first time this year.

Lately, the 29-year-old Finn has been especially good, posting a .930 over his past four games and a .921 over his last eight.

Against Chicago, he wasn't overly busy but he was still tested and with no wiggle room for error, had to come up with some big stops. There wasn't one any better than this spectacular desperation save off Marcus Kruger in the first period.

It's a no-brainer Ramo will be back in net Tuesday in Anaheim and with another couple days off after that, it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up playing both ends of the Friday-Saturday back-to-back in Arizona and San Jose.

While there is question marks about what will happen when Jonas Hiller returns, specifically in respect to Joni Ortio, Ramo's strong play has effectively removed him from that debate.

6. Scorching Hot

While it was an impressive performance against the Stanley Cup champions, piling up the first 10 shots of the third before the Blackhawks got their first 11:30 into the period, it was just the latest in a string of much better efforts lately.
  • November 17 - A 3-2 win over New Jersey, who had won four of five and had been 10-3-1 in their previous 14.
  • November 13 - A 3-2 win in Washington, who had won five of seven and had been 10-3-0 in their previous 13.
  • November 7 - A 5-2 win over Pittsburgh, who had won six in a row and had been 9-1-0 in their previous 10.

In addition, they played well in Tampa Bay only to lose on a late power play goal. You could argue they hung in OK against the Blackhawks on Sunday with Chicago getting all three of its goals (excluding the empty netter) in a span of less than two minutes in the second period.

Also worth pointing out is the Flames schedule so far has been one of the more difficult ones in the NHL. Despite that, they have five wins in their last eight and with some puck luck, that could have been six or seven victories, Calgary has found another gear and is playing more like the team everyone expected back in September.

7. First Blood

While blowing leads has been one of the storylines this season, having a lead to blow is still a positive. If you'll recall, first periods were problematic last year. This is a much improved area for Calgary through the first month-and-a-half

Last season, only six teams scored first less often than the Flames, who did it only 36 times.

This season, Calgary has opened the scoring 13 times, which ties them for the lead with Montreal, Dallas, Chicago and Detroit.  As you can see, the Flames winning percentage is the worst of that bunch, but playing from ahead is always better than playing from behind and it will pay dividends if that quick start trend continues.

Record When Scoring First:

1. Montreal, 12-1-0, .923
2. Dallas, 11-2-0, .846
3. Chicago, 10-2-1, .769
4. Detroit, 9-2-2, .692
5. Calgary, 7-5-1, .538

Last year, the Flames had  a .694 winning percentage when scoring first (25-8-3) so expect this year's percentage to keep moving in that direction and that will result in some big points along the way.

8. Consistency = Chemistry

Seven games in a row now, coach Bob Hartley has rolled out the identical top nine forwards. Well, sort of. Last night, Mason Raymond took the spot of an ill Jiri Hudler (ill) on the top unit. It's been a topic of conversation the past week and the players have been saying it's not a coincidence that the team's improved play has coincided with Hartley getting away from the old line blender that was running at high speed the first month.

The result of this stability has been more team cohesion with each line taking turns being the contributors offensively. The top line of Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler has not been what it was the last couple months of last season by any means but it hasn't been bad either and they're still contributing some important goals. Sean Monahan is now up to seven goals, which puts him on a pace for 28.

The Bennett-Backlund-Frolik trio had been red hot but have cooled off lately but any slack has been picked up by the Colborne-Stajan-Jones trio that has been very good the last couple weeks.

Even the fourth line has been playing very effective minutes lately with Micheal Ferland, Brandon Bollig, Josh Jooris and Derek Grant -- before being returned to the AHL -- all playing a similar style of game. What's been working for the fourth line has been playing an identical style every time they're on the ice -- heavy and/or aggressive forecheck, funnelling pucks to the net and then crashing the crease, and just bringing energy and a different tempo to the game when they get on the ice.

Next Up

While the in-or-out playoff discussion has been swirling around already, the reality is the divisional games are going to have a huge influence on who makes it and who doesn't in the Pacific Division and that portion of the schedule is just now getting going.

Until now, two games with Vancouver and two with Edmonton is all there's been and Calgary has gone 2-2-0.  Last year, the Flames made the playoffs thanks to a 22-6-1 record in divisional games. It's not a necessity that they duplicate that mark this year but after the bad first month, the onus is on them to make up ground by winning a majority of their divisional match-ups.

Next up is Anaheim and the Honda Centre isn't looking nearly as intimidating as it has in the past. The Ducks finished off a road trip in Tampa Bay Saturday and got whipped 5-0. They return home to host Calgary on Tuesday.

Last homestand, the Ducks failed to win going 0-1-2 with losses to Arizona, Edmonton and the New York Islanders. Earlier in the season, Vancouver, Arizona (yes, they've won in Anaheim twice this year) and Colorado took two points out of Anaheim.

The Flames are winless in their last 20 trips to Anahaim (0-15-5) dating back to 2004 and have just one win in their last 30 going back to 1999. Yet, Calgary should head there with some swagger next week and after predicting prior to the season in my Eight Bold Predictions that the Flames would win twice in Anaheim in their three visits, I'm not backing down now.

Calgary also plays in Anaheim on February 21 and March 30.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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1 comment:

  1. in Anaheim, plus one of the other two on the road trip, and I jump off the Auston Matthews Bandwagon.