Monday, November 09, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Flames Thoughts on the Eve of an Important Road Trip

Surf's up.

A busy week for the Flames kicks off Tuesday night in Florida with the first of four straight games on the road.

The trip continues with a tough back-to-back -- Thursday in Tampa Bay and Friday in Washington -- before wrapping up Sunday in Chicago at the always intimidating United Center.

Audio: How many points over the next four games would be considered a successful road trip? Listen here for my take on this and other topics from Monday morning on Sportsnet960 radio when I chatted with Eric Francis, who was guest hosting The Ryan Pinder Show.

However, Calgary is also coming off its most impressive performance of the season Saturday night in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who came to town having won six games in a row. Suddenly the Flames have won consecutive games for the first time, have three wins in their last four and are playing their best hockey of the season.

It is a difficult road trip but if Calgary is truly back to being the hard team to play against like they were last year, claiming two points if you're the Panthers, Lightning, Capitals or Blackhawks, won't be an easy assignment either.

Here are eight random thoughts on the current goings-on with the Flames.

1. Great View of the Pacific

A stat from Sportsnet kicked around last week that demonstrated how difficult it's been historically to make the playoffs if a team starts off like Calgary did with only seven points in its first 13 games.

That's a bogus stat and here's why.

This is only the third year of the NHL's current playoff format in which the top three teams in each division get in, plus two wild card teams. This format is not the same as the old method of top eight in the conference getting in and that's what the stat was mostly based on.

Sure, in the first two years of the current format, it has worked out in both conferences that the top eight teams in points ultimately got in. However, this season is looking to be an exception where this morning, six of the top seven teams in the Western Conference are from the Central Division. The Blackhawks, better than every team in the Pacific right now other than Los Angeles, would miss the playoffs.

So as you can see, Calgary does not need to finish top eight in the conference, they just need to finish top three in the Pacific and that could very well mean finishing ninth in the conference.

Here's the projected season-ending point totals in the Pacific Division after Monday's games:

1. Los Angeles, 105 pts
2. Vancouver, 93 pts
3. Arizona, 88 pts

Up until the Coyotes overtime win over Anaheim on Monday, San Jose was in third place with a projected point total of just 82 points.

In addition to the superior strength of the Central, the other reason why I believe there will be a drop in how many points it will take to finish in the top three in the Pacific (Calgary finished third with 97 points last season) is Arizona and Edmonton are improved and will be less charitable than a year ago. As their point totals go up, other point totals must come down.

Even if you're of the mindset that Anaheim will overcome their slow start and is a lock to finish top two in the Pacific, that pushes Vancouver down to third and would also make a small dent on the Canucks projected point total. I would not be shocked if at season's end, as little as 90 or 91 points is enough to take third place.

2. Bingo with Backs

8, 24, 67, 21, 52, 93, 17, 79, 19...

We often talk about chemistry and its importance yet it's difficult, if not impossible, to build chemistry if players are constantly playing with differnet linemates. One of the prime examples on the Flames is centre Mikael Backlund.

In 15 games, Backlund has had 10 different configurations of wingers. Note that for this, I'm referring strictly to the lines Calgary has deployed to open up a game. Prior to Saturday, he hadn't had the same two wingers for more than two games total, never mind two games in a row.

However, on a night Backlund registered just his third three-point game of his career with three first period assists, it came in his third game with Sam Bennett and Michael Frolik on his flanks. The two previous times they formed a trio were game 4 at Winnipeg (3-1 loss) and game 9 at the New York Islanders (4-0 loss). Interestingly, Backlund's only point all season until last Thursday was an even-strength goal in that game against the Jets in which he was set up by Bennett and Frolik.

Frequency of Linemate (in games):

8 - Frolik
5 - Raymond
4 - Bennett, Bollig
3 - Bouma
2 - Hudler, Jones
1 - Colborne, Ferland

Frequency of Line Combo (game number)

3 - Bennett, Frolik (4, 9, 15)
2 - Bouma, Bollig (2, 3)
2 - Raymond, Jones (10, 11)
2 - Raymond, Bollig (12, 13)
1 - Bouma, Frolik (1)
1 - Raymond, Frolik (5)
1 - Bennett, Hudler (6)
1 - Ferland, Frolik (7)
1 - Colborne, Frolik (8)
1 - Hudler, Frolik (14)

That leaves Josh Jooris and Johnny Gaudreau as the only two non-centres (so excluding Matt Stajan, Sean Monahan and Derek Grant) he hasn't played with. Of course, there's irony to that. Who did Backlund combine with in snapping out of his offensive drought last Thursday against Philadelphia with a goal and an assist? Jooris and Gaudreau, of course.

As you might recall, the Jooris goal came right after he stepped out of the penalty box so Backlund was wrapping up a penalty kill shift. Then, coach Bob Hartley deployed Gaudreau and Backlund together as a forward duo in OT with Backlund having Gaudreau's rebound carom off him and past Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth for the game-winner.

I'd suggest it's time to leave Backlund for an extended period as the second line centre, keep him with Bennett and Frolik -- as appears to be the plan based on Monday's practice -- and see if he can keep it going. It would obviously be a huge plus for Calgary if they can find some reliable secondary scoring in back of the always dangerous No. 1 line.

3. Lead Poisoning

In 15 games this season, Calgary has yet to score first and hold the lead for the remainder of the game. It gets worse. Go back to last season and include the playoffs and they haven't enjoyed a so-called wire-to-wire victory in the last 27 games.

The last time they did it was the 3-1 playoff spot-clinching win against Los Angeles on April 9, 2015. That night, Gaudreau and Hudler made it 2-0 in the first period, the Kings got one back early in the third, but Hudler iced it with an empty net goal.

What makes this stat even more stunning is it's not for a lack of opportunity. Montreal (12) and Chicago (10) are the only teams this season that have scored first more often than the Flames (9). Yet eight of those nine times, the lead never got to 2-0 as the opponent scored next.

Edmonton on Halloween is the only instance so far where the Flames took a 2-0 lead. That night, they also had leads of 3-1 and 4-2 before finally coughing it up when the Oilers scored twice in the opening seven minutes of the third to finally get it back to even at 4-4.

In total, Calgary has taken a lead in a game 13 times and has only held on to that lead twice.
  • Oct. 31 in Edmonton - Took a 5-4 lead with 0:09 left in the third on Frolik's fluke goal. Won by that same score.
  • Nov. 7 vs Pittsburgh - Took a 2-1 lead at 16:21 of the first on Gaudreau's goal. Won 5-2.

This is where the term 'killer instinct' comes in. Being able to take the lead, extend the lead and then put your foot down on the other team's throat. The Flames need to do this way more often.

4. Italian Christmas in Finland

This question came up the other day. Given his fast start in which Flames prospect Andrew Mangiapane has racked up 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 17 games for the OHL's Barrie Colts, is there any outside chance he could make Canada's team for this year's World Junior Championships being held in Finland?

Sure, there's a chance, insists Peter Loubardias. When seeking out information about junior hockey or the World Juniors, there's one guy to talk to and that's the Flames radio colour commentator. Catching up with him at the Saddledome on the weekend, I asked Peter if it would be unprecedented for a guy to come off the radar like Mangiapane (a sixth round pick) and make a team consisting mostly of a bunch of first round picks -- especially if he had not even been at Hockey Canada's summer camp.

Now that doesn't mean it's a likely scenario by any means but yes, there is a chance the crafty 5-foot-10 spark plug could be invited to the final selection camp in mid-December if he keeps playing how he's been playing, which has him among the OHL's scoring leaders.

One factor that's always an unknown is which players considered to be locks for the roster end up not being released by their NHL team. Two examples are in Vancouver. If Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen are not released to play by the Canucks and that seems like a good possibility, that does open up a couple of forward spots.

Mangiapane will get a chance to impress the Hockey Canada brass on Thursday as he'll be part of the OHL team that plays the touring Russians that night in the Canada-Russia Super Series.

Speaking of which, the other Flames prospect playing in that exhibition series is Mason MacDonald. In the battle to make Canada's World Junior team at goaltender, MacDonald is on the QMJHL roster, which plays Nov. 17 and Nov. 19. He'll presumably get one game in splitting the two games with Samuel Montembeault, who was also one of the three goalies Hockey Canada invited to WinSport in August for its Summer Showcase.

5. Ramo's Resurgence

With his first stretch of regular usage, Karri Ramo's save percentage continues to climb. Mind you, it was so woefully low to start with, that's not as impressive of an accomplishment as it sounds. Nonetheless, it's moving in the right direction and it's a baby step that the Flames have welcomed with open arms.

Going back to the start of the month, here is how Ramo's save percentage has risen.
  • Nov. 1, .868
  • Nov. 4, .871 (+.003)
  • Nov. 6, .885 (+.014)
  • Nov. 8, .889 (+.004)

The last two games, Ramo has stopped 49 of 52 shots for a spiffy . 942 SV% so there are positives to take away if you can get past the fact that all three goals he surrendered, he ideally would have stopped. What's changed lately is he's also now mixing in some key saves at key times to keep the team in the game or thwart a comeback.

On Tuesday, Ramo will be looking to have a better outing than last year in Florida where in one of his worst starts of the season, he gave up four goals on 22 shots and was pulled at 13:31 of the second period with the Flames trailing 4-3. With Jonas Hiller in net, Calgary scored three unanswered goals in the third period for the 6-4 comeback victory.

Based on his body of work so far in November, I'd expect Ramo to make at least the next two starts and then we'll see if on Friday on the back-end of the back-to-back, if Hartley decides it's time for a rest and to give Joni Ortio another shot.

6. "And", Not "Or"

Micheal Ferland shed his non-contact sweater Saturday morning at the game-day skate and he was a full participant in practice once again on Monday as the club hit the ice in Florida. His return is imminent and reports are it could be Tuesday night and when that happens, the Flames will be in a rare spot for this season of having 14 forwards.

If that's the case, the two expected to be in the press box will be Mason Raymond and Brandon Bollig. This comes as no surprise as they've been splitting the roles of 12th and 13th forward lately. Their ice time in games they have dressed for is an indication of Hartley's trust in them.
  • Nov 7 vs Pit - Raymond, team-low 5:48 (Bollig a scratch)
  • Nov 5 vs Phi - Bollig, team-low 7:50 (Raymond a scratch)
  • Nov 3 at Col - Bollig, team-low 6:24, Raymond, second-lowest at 9:47 (Grant a scratch)
  • Oct 31 at Edm - Raymond, team-low 6:50, Bollig, second-lowest at 7:33 (Grant a scratch)

Derek Grant is an option to sit too but Hartley seems to like his size and energy, Plus, going 10-1 in face-offs on Thursday night against Philadelphia didn't hurt him. Mind you, he only went 3-5 on Saturday.

Unlike the other two, Grant is also a nice option as the fourth line centre while Bennett is playing the wing. It will be interesting to see when Raymond or Bollig are able to get themselves back into the line-up now that Ferland is back. It might take a while if the team can string some wins together.

7. Beneficial Break-up

The Flames have won three of four games since the break-up of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell as a defence pairing. Just like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the duo just wasn't working anymore.

Never known for their handiwork on the defensive side of the puck anyway, Wideman and Russell nonetheless effectively shouldered a huge chunk of playing time the last two months of last season to help Calgary not just climb back into a playoff spot after losing Mark Giordano, but also reach the second round.

But this year they struggled and without being able to disguise their troubles in their own end with some flashy offensive numbers, it became a real problem.

The break-up has been good for Russell. Playing two games with TJ Brodie and the last two with an improving Dougie Hamilton, he's been playing much better and has been a plus-4 over that span. Russell is still tied for last in the league at minus-12 (with New Jersey's Jordin Tootoo) but he is far closer to the rest of the pack than the minus-16 he was wearing 10 days ago.

Wideman, on the other hand, has struggled. He was a minus-5 in the first three games post-split before going plus-2 against the Penguins while paired with the quietly steady Deryk Engelland on the third pairing.

Whether it remains Russell and Hamilton on the second pairing behind Brodie and Giordano, or whether we see Wideman and Hamilton at some point, the key seems to be keeping Russell and Wideman apart from each other. Although, they can still be friends.

8. Putting the 'Power' in Power Play

The Flames entered Saturday night's game ranked 22nd in the NHL on the power play. The sputtering man advantage had scored only twice in 24 chances over the last nine games.

But it made an early statement against the Penguins and in my opinion was a key moment in the game that set up the Flames for success the rest of the night, even though they didn't actually score a goal.

When David Perron took a delay of game penalty 1:13 into the first period, Calgary applied immediate pressure. Bennett, Backlund and Giordano all had shots on goal and Gaudreau just missed the net with a nifty redirection.

While a badly squandered power play can generate momentum for the opposing team -- as the Flames have seen happen time and time again -- this was not that. This was an example of a team gaining momentum from its power play and using it as a springboard. Shortly after, they got another power play in which they generated more chances. Shortly after that one expired, Calgary opened the scoring and they never really looked back the rest of the way.

On the night, the Flames finished 1-for-3 with five shots on the power play. For context, they had gone 1-for-10 with only seven shots in the previous four games.

Calgary has the personnel to have a good power play, they just need to find a way to reliably gain the zone and get set up. If they can do so consistently, whether they convert power plays or not, they will be momentum-building elements in a game that will more often than not lead to a favorable final result.

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. Good read again, Darren. I'd hasten to add, Florida kicks off a seven out of nine road swing. If the Flames don't manage 10 or more of those 18 points, then the season could be over regardless of the low point totals of the top three in the Pacific. Tonight is as must win as any game yet this season in my mind.