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.
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.
When he has four-or-more days between starts, Chad Johnson is 5-2-1 with 1.92 GAA and .936 SV%. Exactly what you want from a back-up goalie.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) February 25, 2017
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.
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.
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.
I wonder if Michael Matheson will try sending Mikael Backlund his chiropractor bill. That shifty move was some grade 'A' filth from No. 11.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) February 25, 2017
Backlund just stunted on Michael Matheson— FlamesNation (@FlamesNation) February 25, 2017
Mikael on Michael violence pic.twitter.com/APcS5COao0
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
- 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.
We'll see how those draft picks work out for the Bruins but there sure isn't any buyer's remorse from the Calgary side on the Hamilton deal.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) February 24, 2017
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.
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.
100 goals at 22 years and 134 days for #Flames Sean Monahan. Pretty amazing stuff. Here's more on his achievement: https://t.co/lJLxGNIjZu— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) February 24, 2017
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.
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.
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.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Triple 20: Context Around Sean Monahan's Arrival at the Century Mark - We know Sean Monahan is the youngest in Flames history to reach 100 goals, and the five active NHLers to have done it younger are all superstars, but here are some more fun facts. (February 24, 2017)
- Let's Make a Deal: What Fate Lies Behind Doors 1, 2 and 3 for LA, Preds and Flames - A breakdown of the remaining schedule for Nashville, Los Angeles and Calgary, who look like they will be the three teams battling for two wild card spots. (February 20, 2017)
- Making the Most of It: Gulutzan to Deploy the Best Top Nine and Top Four He Can - For the first time all season, Flames coach Glen Gulutzan has what I would argue is the best top nine forwards and top four defencemen configurations he can concoct. (February 18, 2017)
- Ranking the Calgary Flames Top 20 Prospects (February 2017 Edition) - Matthew Tkachuk has graduated from top spot so who is the Flames new No. 1 prospect? Well, there's actually been a few changes to the top of the list. (February 9, 2017)