Saturday, February 25, 2017

Final Playoff Push: Eight Reasons for Flames Fans to be Optimistic

In the past month going back to January 25, only the Washington Capitals (9-2-1) have a better winning percentage than the Calgary Flames (8-2-1). Calgary has also spent eight of those 11 games in enemy barns, which makes it an even more impressive feat.

The much-needed hot streak has the Flames sitting rather comfortably for now in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, this while the Canucks, Jets and Stars fall further and further behind.

As of this morning, Calgary is six points up on Los Angeles. The scuffling Kings have two games in hand but even if they win both, they'd still behind. Calgary is also one point up on Nashville now and has moved into the first wild card spot.

When I comprehensively broke down the race for the two wild card spots in the West earlier in the week, I said it was a three-team race for two spots with Nashville and Los Angeles the other combatants.

But notably St. Louis -- now even with the Predators in points -- is also coming back to the pack so I'd suggest the race has morphed into four teams for three spots, further increasing Calgary's odds. Also don't forget that the Blues are likely to soon part ways with top notch defenceman and pending UFA Kevin Shattenkirk.

Eight Reasons for Optimism 

1. Road Warriors

Calgary is on a 6-1-1 tear in their last eight road games. That streak began after the infamous post-game eruption by coach Glen Gulutzan in Montreal after the Canadiens whipped his team 5-1 on Jan. 24. It has improved the Flames record away from the Saddledome to 17-12-4.

With eight road dates remaining, they're closing in on the franchise record for wins (22) and points (50), which was set in 1987-88. The win total was equalled in 1988-89 and again in 2014-15. If sustained, their current road winning percentage of .576 would be third-best all-time behind 1987-88 (.625) and 1988-89 (.613).

Success away from home is a good thing considering should they get into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Calgary would be opening up on the road. That, combined with their season record against the two division leaders and likely first round opponent -- San Jose (2-1-0) and Minnesota (3-0-0) -- makes one think that should they be able to get in, it is not unreasonable to think that they could pull off an upset and play at least into May.

2. Goaltending Getting it Done

In the end, the goaltending is turning out as expected back in the summer. Brian Elliott has taken over as the No. 1 goalie of late and has been playing his best hockey of the season.

For Elliott, the overall numbers aren't gaudy and they won't be the rest of this season. The poor start to the season put him behind the eight-ball and the five pucks that got behind him in that wacky 6-5 win over Nashville on Tuesday also didn't help.

But get away from the raw numbers, what Elliott has been doing lately is making the big saves when his team really needs them and keeping the team in the game. As an example, he bounced back nicely with a perfect third period against the Predators, which allowed Calgary to rally from behind and win the game. He was sharp in the win over the Lightning two nights later.

Elliott is 6-2-1 with a .909 SV% in his last nine games. Go back to mid-December, he's 11-5-2 in his last 18 appearances with a .905 SV%.

Chad Johnson, meanwhile, has thrived when he's been used how a conventional back-up goalie is used.

While Johnson did have that nice season-saving run in November, it seems like the less he plays, the better he plays. I'd expect Gulutzan to continue to use his goaltenders in a similar fashion.

3. Tkachuk: Elite Agitator, Elite Playmaker

What more can you say about the cantankerous, but also highly-skilled Matthew Tkachuk. The 19-year-old who Gulutzan describes as "always in the fabric of the game" has one of the most unique skill sets I've ever encountered.

Exhibit A

NHL has a statistic it calls A/60, which stands for assists per 60 minutes. What this advanced stat does is remove disparities in ice time and puts all players on an even playing field by calculating how many assists they are averaging over 60 minutes of ice time.

While his team-leading 30 helpers on the season -- yes, one more than Johnny Gaudreau -- is impressive enough, as is him being second in assists among rookies behind Mitch Marner (33), but factor in his average time on ice nightly and suddenly he is among the NHL's elite.

NHL Leaders in A/60 (min of 25 games)

1. Nicklas Backstrom WSH, 2.48
2. Connor McDavid EDM, 2.24
3. Evgeni Malkin PIT, 2.18
4. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.17

As a side note, in team history his 30 assists are already 10th all-time for a rookie. By season's end, he could catch Gaudreau (40) and crack the top five.

Exhibit B

NHL also has a statistic called Minor Pen Dr/60, which stands for minor penalties drawn per 60 minutes. Known as someone that gets under the skin of the opposition, this one is a runaway with Tkachuk way out front.

NHL Leaders in Minor Pen Dr/60 (min of 25 games)

1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.75
2. Garnet Hathaway CGY, 2.53
3. Matt Martin TOR, 2.05
4. Nick Cousins PHI, 1.96

We're many years away from being able to say with certainty if the Blue Jackets (Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3), Oilers (Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 4) or Canucks (Olli Juolevi at No. 5) got their pick wrong in the 2016 NHL Draft, but it's not too early to declare that Calgary got its pick right.

4. Backlund and 3M el Fuego

Second on the team in goals (19) and first in points (44), Mikael Backlund continues to gush confidence as he demonstrated once again on Friday night against Florida.

Blazing through the slot halfway through the first period, he neatly buried Tkachuk's set-up to break a 1-1 tie and give the Flames the lead for good. Later on, he flat-out embarrassed poor Panthers defenceman Michael Matheson with a change of speeds move down the wing. Not sure I've ever seen him make a better move.

Backlund is on pace for 25 goals and 58 points, both of which would be career highs. The way he's going lately though, I'd definitely you take the over as I bet he surpasses 60 points. What a phenomenal season it's been. Just hand him the Frank Selke trophy right now.

The entire 3M line of Backlund, Tkachuk and Michael Frolik, which has been together since Oct. 24, continues to thrive despite being saddled with heavy defensive responsibilities.

During the Flames current three-game winning streak, that trio have been on the ice for 57 even-strength face-offs. Only two have been in the offensive zone. That's right, two! In contrast, 35 have taken place in the defensive end. There is no mystery to how much Gulutzan leans on and trusts this trio to shut down opposing team's best line and also get Calgary out of trouble.

Meanwhile, in addition to Tkachuk's outstanding rookie season and Backlund having a career season, Frolik is also on pace to set a personal best with 46 points, which would be one more than he had with the Florida Panthers in 2008-09.

5. The Flames have Dougie Hamilton

It's been a good season overall for Dougie Hamilton but it's been really good if you narrow the scope a little bit and just look at how he has performed since being paired up with Mark Giordano for the first time on Nov. 15.
  • Points - 33 (6th)
  • P/60 - 2.19 (4th)
  • G/60 - 0.53 (6th)
  • A/60 - 1.66 (4th)
  • Shots - 133 (4th)
  • SAT% Close - 56.74 (4th)

Meanwhile, over that same period, Hamilton ranks 93rd in ice time among NHL defencemen at 20:06.

As the games get more important and with no back-to-backs the rest of the season, the opportunity is there for Gulutzan to use Hamilton more often the more he sees the ice, the better off the team will be.

6. Balanced Offence

As everybody knows, the offensive numbers for Johnny Gaudreau are way down. After 30 goals a year ago, he's got just 11. Included is a miserable stretch lately of just one goal in his last 22 games.

Yet while that would have been a death knell for the team the past couple years, it has not been. Calgary has survived nicely thanks to offensive contributions from other sources. While the 3M line has been a big part of that, they haven't been the only part.

Troy Brouwer notching his 10th goal on Friday makes it 10 players in double-digits. That is tied for the most in the NHL. Additionally, Mark Giordano (9) and Alex Chiasson (8) are on the cusp. If both of them can get there over the final six weeks, that would give Calgary 12 players in double-digits for the first time in 25 years.

Calgary last had a dozen players with 10-or-more goals in 1991-92.  That season, Gary Roberts led the way with 53 while next was Theoren Fleury with 33. They had five guys with between 20 and 23 and five more with between 11 and 13.

Might Sam Bennett's goal on Friday spark him? That would help the team even more. Same with Brouwer, maybe his slump-busting goal will get him on a bit of a roll. Calgary's top nine as currently configured is looking as good as it has all season.

More on No. 13

Getting back to Gaudreau, the bright side is he leads the team with 23 road points, which is one more than he had all of last year away from home. That's a big-time positive given how much of a concern that was a year ago.

If he can only regain his form from a year ago at the Saddledome where he led the NHL in home-ice points -- and he'll get plenty of opportunity with 10 home games in March -- then Calgary will really be cooking.

Of course, there's also that scoring machine Sean Monahan. For a lot more context on the start to Monahan's career including his fourth straight 20-goal season this year -- some stuff you already know, but other stuff you didn't know you wanted to know -- check out my piece from Friday.

Sure, Monahan is not a player without flaws. But my goodness, Calgary got four goals combined from the two forwards (Daniel Tkaczuk, Rico Fata) they previously selected sixth overall so in the grand scheme, 100 goals already is damn impressive. This guy is a flat-out goal-scoring stud.

7. Improved Possession Game

An area of significant and sustainable improvement, which often gets lost whenever Calgary is having trouble scoring or if they get down a couple goals and abandon their style of play, is how much better the Flames have been in terms of generating shots and limiting shots against.

While there are many advanced stats, the main metric used as a proxy for quantifying how good a team's possession game is, is SAT% Close. This is the ratio of shot attempts created versus shot attempts surrendered when the game is close (defined as one-goal lead in the first or second period, tied in the third period).  This is preferred versus just straight-up SAT% because teams play differently if they're ahead by a couple goals (more cautious) or behind by a couple goals (more desperate).

Historically, SAT% Close (aka Corsi Close) has proved to be a good predictor of future, sustainable success. Here is how Calgary has fared in that category in recent years:

Under Glen Gulutzan:

2016-17 - 50.57 (13th)

Under Bob Hartley:

2015-16 - 47.07 (26th)
2014-15 - 45.25 (28th)
2013-14 - 45.85 (27th)
2012-13 - 47.59 (22nd)

I would suggest the improvement in this part of the game has also contributed to Calgary's nearly flawless 23-0-1 record when leading after two periods. Only Pittsburgh (25-0-0) has been better at methodically putting a game away when they enter the final 20 minutes in front.

8. Stabilized Blueline

It's a small sample size, definitely, but Calgary is a perfect 3-0-0 since the addition of Michael Stone to the line-up via a trade with Arizona, which subsequently bumped slow-footed veteran Dennis Wideman to the press box.

While a lot of public opinions have already been formed on what Stone is or isn't based on his time in Arizona, I'm willing to let it play out for the 26-year-old. Someone to play on the second D pairing was badly needed so for GM Brad Treliving to address that hole while also parting with nothing more than a third round pick -- and a conditional fifth rounder if he re-signs -- that makes it a deal that is no risk, potential high reward.

A few things to remember with Stone before you pass final judgement before he's played his first home game with Calgary.

Playing on a new team can be refreshing, especially if you've spent your career on one of the worst teams in the league. Playing in a city you have a ton of familiarity with can also be a boost. He played four seasons with the Calgary Hitmen and his wife, who just gave birth to twins in September, is from Calgary.

For those hung up on his performance this season, he's coming back from major knee surgery last April in which his ACL and MCL in his knee were both repaired. That's a six-month injury recovery and then an indefinite period of trying to get back physically and mentally to where you once were. I'd suggest he's not there yet and may not be until next season.

Was Taking on More and More Responsibility

Stone's ice time was on the rise steadily throughout his career. After logging 16:41 as a rookie in 2012-13, his TOI went to 18:12 the next year, 20:52 the year after, then 22:29 last year. Prior to this season, he had spent much of his time with the Coyotes skating with Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle.

All you're asking from Stone is to play a simple and safe game and let TJ Brodie go and do his thing. Once the team is back home in March and gets some practice time in, I'd expect the Brodie-Stone pairing to build some chemistry and keep getting better and better.

On a similar note, Matt Bartkowski isn't hurting the Flames either. He and Deryk Engelland are providing some nice stability from the third pairing.

The Flames have improved their back end at a minimal acquisition cost and that will help this team the remainder of the season.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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  1. You're bang on as usual (about not knowing something that I need to know): 23-0-1 when leading after 2. Who knew? besides you ... and of course Peter L. I'm sure :)
    Too bad the multi-billion dollar Bettman Empire outdid themselves with such a p1sspoor scheduling job this year.
    Only 4 games against the Oilers and all of them before New Years. How incredibly incompetent!
    If we still had 2 or 3 games against them this would have been the icing on the cake.
    Thanks Gary, for absolutely nothing. (To say nothing of the non-calls all year - like the elbow to Tkachuk's face in the Bolts game.)

    1. Meh, scheduling has pros and cons always. Had Calgary swept the Oilers in the back-to-back to start the season, there would be much more happiness in Calgary with the schedule.

      As for their record after two periods, it's impressive and an indication that they're embracing how the coach wants them to play.

  2. To be fair, Harley had much younger players who hadn't matured to what they are now; and the GM never went out and bought him the goaltending Gully now has. Gully has done a nice job, but so did Coach Bob considering what he was given.

    1. Bob Hartley's work with this team was fine but the GM wanted a new style of play that catered to better puck possession, seeing that as the path to getting to the next level.

      It came time to bring in a new coach and a new system (and new PP, PK) and while it took a while for it to sink in and the guys to learn it, understand it, embrace it and trust it (even if they get behind 1-0), that's where they're at now and it's why they're a better team.