Saturday, January 14, 2017

Late-Season Meaningful Battle of Alberta: Saturday is the First One in Nearly Eight Years

The Flames and Oilers in a meaningful hockey game in January. It hasn't happened very often.

In fact, tonight when the two sides clash at Rogers Place will be the first time in nearly eight years that Calgary and Edmonton have met this late in the season with both teams in a playoff spot.

The last time the provincial rivals met in that type of setting was at Rexall Place on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009.

As astonishing as that sounds, it's also not all that surprising considering not very often in the last two-and-a-half decades have both teams been good at the same time. Only once in the last 25 years (2005-06) have both have made the playoffs in the same season.

To give you a sense of how long ago the last late-season meaningful Battle of Alberta was, not one player that appeared in the last one remains with the team today, or at least not in a playing capacity.

Revisiting February 21, 2009

Going into that showdown -- game No. 59 for both teams -- Calgary (34-18-6) sat atop the Northwest Division with a comfortable eight-point lead on Vancouver. Twelve points back of the Flames and clinging to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference was Edmonton (29-25-4). By clinging, I mean it. The seven teams behind the Oilers were all within five points, beginning with Anaheim, just one back.

Calgary won that night 3-2 in a shootout. Erik Cole had the only goal of the first period to give Edmonton a 1-0 lead. Jarome Iginla, converting a stunning Bobby Orr-like set-up from Cory Sarich, tied it in the second period. In the third, Ales Hemsky scored 1:46 in but with 1:05 remaining and Miikka Kiprusoff pulled for an extra skater, Matthew Lombardi snapped a shot through a screen that beat Dwayne Roloson just under the crossbar.

In the shootout, Todd Bertuzzi shot first and beat Roloson with a nifty one-handed backhand and that would be it. Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Hemsky each failed to get a shot away on Miikka Kiprusoff.

Relive the shootout:

After that game, Calgary went on to win won four of its next five to open up a 10-point gap on the Canucks as of Mar. 6.  But it would not be enough. A 7-11-0 finish while Vancouver went 12-5-2 over the final five weeks cost the Flames the division title and resulted in a 4-5 match-up with Chicago in round 1. That series was won 4-2 by the Blackhawks. Calgary missed the playoffs the next five seasons before finally returning to the post-season in 2014-15.

As for Edmonton, they lost just twice in regulation the next month going 6-2-4. With three weeks to go, they were in a playoff spot and had a four-point cushion to work with. But they lost eight of their final 11 to fritter that lead away and finish six points out. That's as close as they've finished lately and by a long shot. In the seven seasons since, they've missed the post-season by 33, 35, 21, 10 (lockout-shortened 48-game season), 14, 25 and 17 points respectively.

Where Are They Now?

While none of the players in uniform that night in 2009 are still with the team, one player on the roster still is. Mark Giordano was a member of the Flames but he did not play that night as he hurt his shoulder injury two nights earlier in a collision with Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck. He would end up having season-ending surgery. Playing defence in his place was Jim Vandermeer.

Of the 40 players in uniform that night, only a handful are still in the league. For the Flames, Jarome Iginla (Col), Mike Cammalleri (NJ), Dion Phaneuf (Ott), Adam Pardy (Nsh) and back-up goaltender Curtis McElhinney (Tor) are still kicking around.

For Edmonton, Kyle Brodziak (Stl), Andrew Cogliano (Ana), Sam Gagner (Clb), Tom Gilbert (LA) and Ales Hemsky (Dal) are still on NHL rosters.

Playoff Match-Up Long Overdue

Once considered by many the best rivalry in the NHL, the Flames and Oilers met in the post-season five times in the span of nine years from 1983 to 1991. For me, I was age 13-21 during that time and it was an absolutely glorious time to be a hockey fan.

But tragically, there hasn't been a post-season Battle of Alberta since.

That last playoff game between these two sides was played at the Saddledome on April 16, 1991 and it is a memory that haunts longtime Flames fans. With the opening round series tied 3-3, Calgary opened up a commanding 3-0 lead, only to see the Oilers storm back with four unanswered to take their first lead. The Flames got the tying goal late in the third from Ronnie Stern but lost 5-4 in overtime on Esa Tikkanen's third goal of the night at 6:58 that gave Edmonton the dramatic series win. It was a heart-breaking, punch-to-the-gut setback for the home side.

As bitter as Flames fans likely still are, it's a game worth re-visiting via the brief highlight package below. If you're in your 20s or early 30s and have no recollection of it, just listen to the continual roar in the building that night. Man, what an atmosphere.

Could there be a Flames-Oilers meeting in the playoffs this season? That's asking a lot.

For that to happen in the first round, there's just the two scenarios of course. In one, Calgary or Edmonton would need to finish in top spot in the Pacific Division. That's a big ask. Just as unlikely is both teams finishing ahead of two California teams in order to meet in a 2-3 match-up.

While still a long shot, the odds are probably better of a second round match-up although that would require the dominos to fall just right.

Final Word

It's incredibly sad to think that if you're under the age of 35, you have nothing but a vague, distant memory at best of watching a Flames-Oilers playoff game.

The oldest player on Calgary's roster today is Deryk Engelland, 34, who coincidentally was born in Edmonton. He would have been nine years old during that 1991 series. What do you remember from when you were that age? Probably not much.

The game has changed so much that the rivalry will never be what it was back in the 80s and early 90s where blood on the ice and jam-packed penalty boxes were a regular thing. But that doesn't mean it can't still be intense and compelling in its own way.

The Oilers with lots of young skill in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.  The Flames with much of the same in Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan and Dougie Hamilton.

Is there less edge? Absolutely, but there's still plenty of snarl in the likes of Darnell Nurse, Milan Lucic, Matthew Tkachuk and Troy Brouwer.

As you're watching the game tonight, let your imagination wander to when these two franchises finally do meet once again because sooner or later, and hopefully sooner than later, it's going to happen and it will be fantastic.

Both teams are finally heading the right direction at the same time. Both have young cores that should make success sustainable for the next several years.

I can't wait.

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    Thursday, January 12, 2017

    Calder Darkhorse: Time to Wake up and Recognize Tkachuk's Impactful Rookie Season

    For Matthew Tkachuk, he finds himself sandwiched in the NHL's top five by some elite company.

    The two guys ahead of him, Pittsburgh's Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, are earning a salary of $9 and $9.5 million respectively to help set-up Sidney Crosby. The two guys behind him are league-leading scorer Connor McDavid and Washington centre Nicklas Backstrom, who brings in a cool $7 million for often riding shotgun with Alex Ovechkin.

    This group I'm referring to are the NHL's top five playmakers over the past two-and-a-half months.

    NHL - Assists Per 60 Minutes (since Oct. 25):

    1. Phil Kessel PIT, 34 gm, 2.68
    2. Evgeni Malkin PIT, 34 gm, 2.31
    3. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 35 gm, 2.22
    4. Connor McDavid EDM, 37 gm, 2.21
    5. Nicklas Backstrom WSH, 36 gm, 2.17

    While Oct. 25, a night that came 13 days into the regular season, may appear to be a pretty random pull, it's actually not.

    That evening in St. Louis, against the team his dad Keith played for from 2001 through 2010, was the first game Tkachuk was inserted onto a line with Mikael Backlund and Michel Frolik.

    Prior to that, the 18-year-old had been a healthy scratch for two games, a curious decision by Glen Gulutzan that had raised some eyebrows. The coach defended it by calling it part of the organization's development plan for Tkachuk, who had dressed for each of the season's first five games and averaged 11:55 in ice time. His one point up until then had been a goal.

    Watching the game from a different vantage point certainly worked.

    Since his brief press box hiatus, he has been a fixture on that line and they've been the club's No. 1 line without question.

    Calgary Flames - Even-Strength Scoring (since Oct. 25)

    1. Matthew Tkachuk, 5-14-19
    T2. Michael Frolik, 5-11-16
    T2. Dougie Hamilton, 7-9-16
    T4. Mikael Backlund, 7-7-14
    T4. Johnny Gaudreau, 7-7-14
    6. Sam Bennett, 7-6-13
    7. Matt Stajan, 4-8-12
    8. Sean Monahan, 4-7-11
    9. Alex Chiasson, 5-5-10
    T10. TJ Brodie, 1-7-8
    T10. Kris Versteeg, 2-6-8

    You could also argue they've been one of the best and most consistent trios in the entire NHL.

    Wake up PHWA Voters

    It was a few minutes past midnight Eastern time on Wednesday night when Dougie Hamilton fired in the game-winner late in the third period of a huge 3-2 victory over Pacific Division-leading San Jose.

    With Tkachuk in his usual parking stall just outside the top of the goal crease, Hamilton's shot eluded goaltender Aaron Dell.

    As the guy providing the screen, Tkachuk was instrumental on the goal that earned Calgary two points against last year's Stanley Cup finalists. But you would never have known it if you woke up Thursday morning and skimmed the game summary.

    Officially, Hamilton from Mark Giordano and Backlund is how the goal went down. Unofficially, Tkachuk was key in making that goal happen, just like he played an integral role on the team's first goal by Frolik that he earned an assist on, as well as the pivotal Flames second goal in the final minute of the second period that tied it, which he scored himself on a deflection.

    The late-night heroics aren't new either.

    It was around 12:30 a.m. Eastern on Saturday night when Tkachuk's outstanding pass sprung Frolik on a breakaway, the goal with 1:50 left in the third securing a 3-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

    That set-up extended Tkachuk's point streak at the time to nine games, longest by a rookie this season and longest in club history since Joe Nieuwendyk's 14-game point spree in 1987-88.

    But out East where a majority of the Professional Hockey Writers Association voters reside for the NHL awards, is anyone staying awake long enough to take notice of what Tkachuk is doing? You sure hope so. For those that are, the eyes are surely wide open as just watching him play is like a jolt of caffeine.

    Don't Sleep on Tkachuk

    While much ballyhooed Toronto star Auston Matthews and Winnipeg phenom Patrik Laine have dominated Calder discussions so far and for good reason, remember that there are three finalists for every award and that includes rookie of the year. While I agree those other two guys should be shoe-ins -- and one of them is most likely to win it, Tkachuk is someone not nearly enough people outside Calgary are talking about. At this point, he is worthy of a podium finish.

    Mitch Marner from the Leafs is naturally getting a lot of love. So is his Toronto teammate William Nylander. Columbus defenceman Zach Werenski has been a huge part of the Blue Jackets stunning first half success, Detroit winger Anthony Mantha has been piling up points lately and in net, you have the stellar play from Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray.

    But don't sleep on Tkachuk and Eastern voters, I mean that literally. Don't forget about the kid stuck out West in the mountain time zone that has been tremendous.

    While it shouldn't, if it does come down to who has the most points, the NHL version of a popularity contest, Tkachuk is at least slowly climbing up that ladder too. On the season, Tkachuk (8-19-27) ranks fourth in rookie scoring behind Laine (21-16-37), Matthews (21-14-35) and Marner (10-22-32). More recently, he's been right there with them, point-for-point.

    NHL - Rookie Scoring (since Dec. 1):

    1. Patrik Laine WPG, 17 gm, 8-10-18
    T2. Auston Matthews TOR, 16 gm, 11-6-17
    T2. Matthew Tkachuk, CGY, 18 gm, 2-15-17
    4. Anthony Mantha DET, 18 gm, 8-6-14
    T5. Ryan Hartman CHI, 20 gm, 5-8-13
    T5. Mitch Marner TOR, 16 gm, 3-10-13

    Not reflected above but not to be glossed over is Tkachuk is averaging three minutes less in playing time compared to Matthews and nearly four minutes less than Laine.

    Go back once again to when Tkachuk joined the Backlund-Frolik line and factor in ice time and you get the same names but in a different and intriguing order.

    NHL - Rookie Points Per 60 Minutes (since Oct. 25):

    1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 35 gm, 3.03
    2. Mitch Marner TOR, 34 gm, 2.97
    3. Patrik Laine WPG, 37 gm, 2.88
    4. Auston Matthews TOR, 34 gm, 2.65
    5. Anthony Mantha DET, 26 gm, 2.56

    Of course, here we are halfway through the article and two of the most compelling aspects of Tkachuk's overall game have yet to be tagged and entered into the courtroom as evidence.

    Defensively Responsible

    First, you have the fact that Tkachuk is putting up all these assists and points while playing left wing on the Flames No. 1 shutdown line.

    Sure, the offence has come in spades this year for the line -- Backlund leads the team (12-17-29), Tkachuk (8-19-27) is tied with Johnny Gaudreau (10-17-27) for second, and Frolik (11-14-25) is tied with Dougie Hamilton (7-18-25) for fourth -- but that's not even their primary modus operandi.

    This is a line that Gulutzan continually sticks on the ice against other team's top lines. Their first priority is making sure the line they're up against does not score. The most difficult line match-ups on most nights goes to these three guys. While Backlund and Frolik are veterans who are used to that role, that's a boatload of responsibility to heap on the shoulders of a kid that just turned 19 in December, yet he's handled it remarkably well.

    Advanced stats reveals that despite the tough assignments, that line is carrying the play when they're on the ice. Known officially by the NHL as SAT% (shot attempt percentage), but better known by terms like Corsi and possession, this number is a ratio that reflects the volume of shot attempts by a team while a player is on the ice at 5-on-5, compared to shot attempts against.

    NHL - SAT% (since start of the season)

    1. Patrice Bergeron BOS, 62.01, 58.35 ZS%
    2. Brad Marchand BOS, 61.14, 57.21 ZS%
    3. Colin Miller BOS, 59.78, 62.72 ZS%
    4. Torey Krug BOS, 59.30, 59.66 ZS%
    5. David Pastrnak BOS, 59.08, 55.94 ZS%
    6. Anze Kopitar LA, 58.72, 50.65 ZS%
    7. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 57.44, 34.59 ZS%
    8. Lars Eller WSH, 57.37, 55.98 ZS%
    9. Aleksander Barkov FLA, 57.37, 54.58 ZS%
    10. Jordan Staal CAR, 57.31, 47.37 ZS%

    The additional number that really pops for Tkachuk is the zone start percentage (ZS%). With everyone on this list other than Tkachuk at No. 7 and Jordan Staal at No. 10, more often than not and sometimes way more often, those players come on the ice at 5-on-5 when there's a face-off in the offensive zone.

    For Tkachuk, it's completely the opposite.

    On the season, Tkachuk has been on the ice at 5-on-5 for 110 faceoffs in the offensive zone. That's an average of 2.5 per game. Meanwhile, he's been on the ice for faceoffs in the defensive zone 208 times or nearly twice as often.

    It's an indication that Gulutzan trusts him and his line more than anyone else to get the team out of a jam.

    One of the NHL's Best Antagonizers

    Another attribute of his game is his ability to get under the skin of the opponent.

    In a statistic that speaks volumes and is testament to Gulutzan's favourite compliment that he pays to Tkachuk regularly in that he's "always in the fabric of the game", Tkachuk (76) ranks third in the league in penalty minutes behind Dallas agitator Antoine Roussel (87) and Toronto pest Matt Martin (77). That said, he's drawn more penalties than he's taken.

    Minor Penalties Taken Per 60 (min of 20 games):

    1 Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.82
    2. Chris Thorburn WPG, 2.46
    3. Ryan Garbutt ANA, 2.43
    4. Chris Neil OTT, 2.42
    5. Brett Connolly WSH, 2.27

    Minor Penalties Drawn Per 60 (min of 20 games):

    1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.93
    2. Garnet Hathaway CGY, 2.71
    3. Matt Martin TOR, 2.46
    4. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 2.22
    5. William Carrier BUF, 2.04

    For lack of a better description, this guy is a shit disturber in the truest sense. He is always around the front of the net and wreaking havoc. A late shove, a little whack in the leg, some barking, stealing Brent Burns' stick, he excels at getting the opposition defenders off their game and he is going to be universally hated around the league in no time.

    A guy you love to have on your team but hate to play against, name the last time the Flames had a guy that fit that description.

    It's been a void missing for decades and it's why the Flames were delighted to see the stars align and be able to land Tkachuk at No. 6 in the NHL Draft last June.

    Final Word

    Getting to watch him on a nightly basis, there is a great appreciation in Calgary of the many elements of Tkachuk's game. With hockey 'in his blood', having grown up around it with his Dad, he is a quick study that has earned everything he's gotten this year. He continues to be one of the team's top players.

    His playmaking has impressed. Whether it's passing plays leading up to a goal or puck possession that turns into a shot on goal that turns into a rebound that turns into a goal, he's been a huge part of the offence.

    His shot isn't bad either as Arizona goaltender Mike Smith can attest. You may remember the bullet he put under the crossbar from a sharp angle late in the third to beat the Coyotes on Nov. 16.

    His beyond-his-years hockey IQ, defensive smarts and puck management earned him a spot on Calgary's shutdown line and has kept him there.

    His ability to piss everybody off yet more often than not, put his team on the power play, is a skill you can't teach.

    Has he been boosted by the tremendous seasons being enjoyed by Backlund and Frolik? Certainly. But don't discount how much Tkachuk has helped their game also. It's a two-way street.

    In two weeks, the Flames make their way out East for stops in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

    Heads up voters, with Calder votes due in a couple months, this is a guy to watch and in person if you have the chance. Don't forget about him after he leaves town either. Heck, a few late nights watching the Pacific Division won't kill you. You can always sleep-in during the summer.

    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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        Saturday, January 07, 2017

        Eight From 80 Feet: Reflections on a Strange Night in Vancouver and Other Musings

        After one of the weirder Calgary results in recent memory, here's a look back at Friday's 4-2 loss along with some other thoughts on the current goings-on with the Flames.

        It's a round-up of randomness I like to call Eight From 80 Feet.

        1. Historically Unusual Loss

        It's safe to say games like last night don't happen very often and I'm not talking just in the context of the Flames, but league-wide.

        Prior to last night's game in which Calgary outshot Vancouver 46-13 but lost 4-2, the last NHL team according to Hockey Reference to have 46-or-more shots, give up 13-or-fewer, and lose was Ottawa on April 6, 2000.

        That night at the Corel Centre, the Senators outshot the Islanders by the identical 46-13 margin, but lost 2-1. The masterful performance in goal for New York was turned in by a 22-year-old kid named Steve Valiquette, making only his second career NHL start.

        If you don't recall the 6-foot-6, eighth round draft pick of the Kings, you're forgiven as his career was far from illustrious. Valiquette never signed with Los Angeles, eventually signing as a free agent with New York. After that 45-save victory, it would be nearly four years -- all spent in the AHL -- before he finally made his next NHL start, this one coming with the New York Rangers.

        He would play only 46 games in his NHL career, winning 14 times. In an interesting side note, he turned down a contract offer to play for Yaroslavl in the KHL the summer prior to the tragic plane crash on September 7, 2011, that resulted in the deaths of the entire Yaroslav team and coaching staff.

        2. Hey Joe, Meet Matt

        In helping set-up Michael Frolik's opening goal Friday night, Matthew Tkachuk extended his point streak to eight games. That's the longest point spree by a Flames rookie since 21-year-old Joe Nieuwendyk went on a 14-game tear from Dec. 20, 1987 through Jan. 21, 1988, a mark that is the club record. Having just turned 19, Tkachuk is two years younger.

        In a side note to that, Nieuwendyk actually had points in 16 consecutive games that he played, but it is only recognized by the NHL as a 14-game point streak and here is why. After scoring four goals against Buffalo on Dec. 13 of that 1987-88 season, then scoring a goal against Winnipeg in the team's next game on Dec. 16, he was a scratch for Calgary's game in Los Angeles on Dec. 19 due to a stomach ailment. That game missed ended his point streak by the NHL's official criteria. Back at zero, he started the 14-game streak the next night with a goal at the Saddledome in the back end of the back-to-back set with the Kings.

        There were similar circumstances around Johnny Gaudreau's point streak earlier this season. His goal in Minnesota, the game he broke his finger, ended up not being recognized in his subsequent point streak that began after he returned from his 10-game absence. So while he had points in eight consecutive games he played, it was only officially recognized by the league as a seven-game streak.

        One distinction with Nieuwendyk's streak is he piled up a ton of goals while also averaging over two points per game. Over those 14 contests on his way to a 51-goal, 92-point rookie season, Nieuwendyk potted 15 goals and 29 points. During Tkachuk's run, he's had only one multi-point game and eight of his nine points have been assists.

        But, it's also a completely different era now. Back in 1987-88, the Flames scored 397 goals in 80 games -- and that was before 3-on-3 overtime (or even 4-on-4 OT, for that matter) came into being. That works out to an unfathomable-to-imagine average of nearly five goals per game. With 109 goals in 41 games this year, Calgary is averaging 2.7 goals per game.

        3. Climbing the Calder Scoring Ladder

        Tkachuk's point streak ties him with Toronto's Auston Matthews for the longest this season by a rookie. The streak for Matthews (8-4-12) is also still active and coincidentally, his streak also started on Dec. 19, the same night Tkachuk began his run with a two-assist effort in Arizona.

        Tkachuk is approaching some rarified air with this current run, which he will try to extend to nine games on Saturday night when the Flames host Vancouver in the back end of the home-and-home. In the last four years, only three rookies have compiled point streaks longer than eight games:
        • Shayne Gostisbehere PHI - 15 games (5-13-18) in 2015-16
        • Nathan MacKinnon COL - 13 games (5-13-18) in 2013-14
        • Mark Stone OTT -  9 games (8-5-13) in 2014-15

        He's also creeping up on the pack in the rookie scoring race. Since the streak began nearly three weeks ago, only Matthews has more points than Tkachuk.

        In fact, go back to mid-November when Tkachuk returned to the line-up after missing two games with a cut on his hand and he's tied for third in rookie scoring:

        NHL Rookie Scoring - Since Nov. 15

        1. Auston Matthews TOR, 23 gm, 15-8-23
        2. Patrik Laine WPG, 24 gm, 10-10-20
        T3. Anthony Mantha DET, 23 gm, 10-8-18
        T3. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 25 gm, 4-14-18
        5. Mitch Marner TOR, 23 gm, 5-12-17

        While Matthew and Laine are looking like locks to be two of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy this season, Tkachuk should definitely be in the conversation to be the third if you also take into consideration the heavy defensive responsibilities he takes on in playing on Calgary's shutdown line. The kid has been absolutely terrific.

        4. Brodie Bouncing Back

        All in all, it hasn't been a great season for TJ Brodie, who has not looked quite right much of the year and with reason. While he's playing his natural left side, it's not your natural side when you prefer the right side and have been playing it most of your life.

        Plus, partnering with slow-footed Dennis Wideman is also an entirely different dynamic than being alongside Mark Giordano, who prior to this season had been his regular partner.

        But he appears to be turning the corner, while still doing all that heavy lifting.

        Brodie played a season-high 27:29 on Friday. It's the second time in nine days he's been over 27 minutes, which up until this point is a mark he hadn't hit since last March. That tells me that coach Glen Gulutzan recognizes that is game is coming around and is relying on him even more.

        Also encouraging, his four shots on goal against the Canucks was a season-high. This isn't a guy that shoots a lot. Only four times in his career has he had more than four shots in a game. It shows that he was in the middle of the action on Friday. In fact, you could say he was the epicentre.

        Wading into some advanced stats from Friday reveals just how good the team was when Brodie was on the ice.

        With Brodie on the ice at 5-on-5:
        • Shot attempts for - 31
        • Shot attempts against - 4

        A plus-27 differential is insane and is the biggest such number in a single game for a Flames player going back to the start of 2010-11, which is as far back as the NHL's official advanced stats records go.

        The previous high of +26 (35 shot attempts for, 9 shot attempts against) belonged to Lee Stempniak, who did that on Feb. 2, 2013.

        You may recall that night against Chicago. It was the lockout-shortened season and the Blackhawks came to Calgary on a Saturday night having picked up a point in their first eight games (6-0-2), a streak that would eventually reach 24 games (21-0-3) before suffering their first regulation loss. Calgary outshot the visitors 47-19 and Jay Bouwmeester beat Ray Emery to give the Flames a 2-1 lead with 35 seconds left in the third period before Marian Hossa tied it at 19:57. Chicago won it in a shootout.

        Another interesting side note is after being a positive plus-minus player only four times in the season's first 35 games, Brodie has been in the black four times in the last six games -- and while not being a minus at all in that span.

        It's dangerous to read too much into plus-minus but being worst in the league as Brodie was in that category not that long ago was clearly not a good thing. But lately he's begun to slowly chip away at that figure. It's still minus-16, but it sure beats minus-20.

        5. Insane Possession Game

        The shot attempts for the game on Friday was a mind-blowing 84-22 in favour of Calgary.

        If you look strictly at 5-on-5 play and that always is a more pertinent measuring point, it was an equally impressive 61-18 ratio. That possession percentage (aka SAT%) of 77.22 for the Flames was the highest by any team in an NHL game in nearly two years.

        On Jan. 30, 2015, Vancouver had a 82.86 percent (58-12 ratio) in a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

        Flames Top Five Possession Games - Since 2010-11:

        1. 77.22 - Jan. 6, 2017 - 4-2 loss in Vancouver
        2. 69.47 - Apr.  6, 2011 - 6-1 win vs. Edmonton
        3. 68.29 - Nov. 16, 2016 - 2-1 (OT) win vs. Arizona
        T4. 68.18 - Mar. 30, 2011 - 4-2 loss vs. Anaheim
        T4. 68.18 - Feb. 17, 2016 - 5-3 loss vs. Minnesota

        There is one reason the Flames lost the game on Friday and that reason is Ryan Miller.

        6. Soft Spot Almost Gone

        Saturday night marks the end of seven-game segment that began on Dec. 23, which at the outset looked like an incredibly soft part of the schedule with six of the games coming against teams that at the time were the bottom three clubs in the overall standings.

        So far, Calgary has gone a respectable 4-2-0.

        Before that stretch began, I said you want to get through this segment with at least five wins. Sure, you could be greedy and expect six wins, but the reality is sometimes you'll lose a game you deserved to win and that was the case on Friday.

        Of course, also worth noting is the schedule hasn't turned out to be quite as soft as first thought given the Canucks hot play of late. Vancouver, the opponent in three of the games, are now on a six-game winning streak that has them in a wild card spot in the Western Conference. With that exhibit entered into evidence, five wins in seven games really will be a solid and respectable outcome in a league where you never know what can happen on any given night.

        So we'll see if Calgary can pick up those 9th and 10th points of this 16-day segment tonight. If they turn in a similar effort at home as they did at Rogers Arena, surely they won't be leaving the building without a win this time.

        7. Elliott's Tough Night

        Did Brian Elliott get out duelled by Miller on Friday? Absolutely. But if you're hanging all four goals on him, I encourage you to watch the highlights again. The second and fourth goals were both bad bounces that he had no real chance on.

        Sure, two bad goals allowed in a game is still not great and it will probably pave the path for Chad Johnson's return tonight, but way more than Elliott losing the game, Friday night was a case of Miller stealing the game for the Canucks.

        Calgary could easily have had five or six goals and that would have been plenty of run support for Elliott to get another victory. Instead, his five-game winning streak is snapped.

        But I wouldn't let Friday night detract from what had been a decent little run for Elliott of late. Sure, his winning streak has come against some softer opponents, but they're still NHL teams with NHL players shooting the puck and over that five-game span, he fashioned a tidy .922 save percentage and a 1.80 goals-against average.

        As they say, all players over the course of a six-month season will have good and bad nights. It's just that those games when you are a goalie are more amplified.

        I don't think Elliott will have to wait too long to get back in the net and when he does return, I wouldn't be surprised if he bounces back with another solid effort like we've seen over the last couple weeks.

        8. Middle-Six Scoring Drought

        With the schedule about to get more difficult starting Monday night when the Flames play in Winnipeg, they'll need to get more offence from the rest of the team as lately it's been all about the Backlund-Frolik-Tkachuk line.

        Young stars Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett have combined for only four even-strength points over the last six games. That's only one more than fourth liner Matt Stajan has on his own and that's clearly not good enough.

        Flames Even-strength scoring - Last six games:

        Backlund, 4-3-7
        Frolik, 1-4-5
        Tkachuk, 1-3-4
        Brodie, 0-4-4
        Wideman, 1-2-3
        Stajan, 0-3-3
        Gaudreau, 2-0-2
        Versteeg, 0-2-2
        D. Hamilton, 0-2-2
        Giordano, 1-0-1
        Chiasson, 1-0-1
        Bennett, 1-0-1
        Bouma, 1-0-1
        Engelland 0-1-1
        Monahan, 0-1-1
        Ferland, 0-0-0
        Hathaway, 0-0-0
        Wotherspoon, 0-0-0
        Jokipakka, 0-0-0
        F. Hamilton, 0-0-0

        Since the start of December, Calgary's power play (21-for-60, 35.0%) has been phenomenal and is ranked No. 1 in the league over that period. The penalty kill (51-for-58, 87.9%) has been great also at fifth-best over that same duration.

        What the special teams success has disguised are some concerns offensively, especially lately, at five-on-five. For the Flames to hang onto the playoff spot they currently possess, they'll need to get more from their middle six forwards. That's Gaudreau, Monahan, Alex Chiasson, Bennett, Micheal Ferland and Kris Versteeg.

        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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            Wednesday, January 04, 2017

            One Man's Opinion: Time to Change the NHL's Ludicrous and Broken Point System

            Imagine the ridicule.

            Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announces that starting in 2017, whenever a game is decided in extra innings, the losing team will no longer be charged with a loss. Instead, they will be credited with a half-win in the standings.

            An absurd concept? Absolutely. But welcome to the National Hockey League model. As opposed to the NFL, CFL, NBA and MLB, that is exactly what happens when a hockey game goes to extra time. The loser gets a pat on the back, a hearty 'thanks for coming out' and a single point.

            What if this was the case in football?

            If the NFL awarded a point for losing in overtime, then it's Tampa Bay that makes the playoffs in the NFC this year instead of Detroit. Each team finished with 9-7 records with the Lions getting the last wild card spot based on the tie-breaker. But viewed through the more charitable lens of Gary Bettman, the Buccaneers would have been 9-6-1 as their week 8 loss to the Oakland Raiders came in OT.

            Win for You, Half-Win for You...

            No, the NHL doesn't refer to the point awarded to the losing team as a half-win like I do, nor do they describe it as a loser point, which is the popular expression with fans. Their carefully crafted spin is the victorious team gets a bonus point. Semantics aside, if you are getting half as many points as the winning team when you lose, I feel the description 'half win' is, well, on point.

            One thing for certain is an overtime loss in the NHL is not viewed as an ordinary loss -- far from it -- and we know this because of the way it's uniquely categorized.

            In hockey, all wins are created equal. Whether it happens in regulation time, in overtime, or in a shootout, they're all proudly lumped together under the category of win -- no questions asked.

            Awkwardly and inconsistently, the same cannot be said about losses.

            Lose a hockey game in overtime or a shootout and the league feels sorry for you and essentially doesn't count that as a loss. Instead, those types of setbacks get their own column in the standings way over to the right called 'overtime loss', which is code for participation ribbon.

            Inequality Kills Credibility

            It really is an asinine concept that some NHL games only have two points available yet randomly in some other games, there are three points up for grabs. The latter represents a 50 percent mark-up in the overall value of a game.

            The idea of a professional sports league having a floating value for every game is ridiculous.

            Last night in San Jose, the NHL handed out its 150th loser point when Los Angeles beat the Sharks 2-1 in overtime. It's insane that the season is not yet at the halfway mark and the league has already handed out that many bonus points. This is the sports equivalent of printing money.

            At this pace, 323 extra points will be given out by season's end. That would be a new high. The most since the 2004-05 lockout was 307 in 2013-14. Last year there were 275 bonus points awarded. You get a point and you get a point and you get a point... Is Bettman the NHL's commissioner or is it Oprah Winfrey?

            That brings us to the NHL's fake .500 mark. Seriously, is there a bigger scam going? Ginsu Knives have more credibility.

            By counting all wins as wins but not counting all losses as losses, you end up with standings that don't add up. The result is this notion of a .500 mark that isn't a .500 mark at all, despite it being touted as such by coaches, players and media.

            Depending on what happens in other games the next couple nights, if Winnipeg (18-19-3) and Buffalo (14-15-8) each win their next game, it is very possible that a glance at the league standings on Friday morning will reveal only two teams below the so-called .500 mark. Two! Arizona (11-21-5) and Colorado (12-24-1). Viewed another way, that would mean 28 of the NHL's 30 teams would be at or above .500. Alrighty then.

            It's dumb, dumb, dumb and highlights the farcical nature of this dreamworld the NHL has concocted where potentially every team could be above .500.

            Parity? How about parody. Do they really think fans are that stupid?

            It's for this reason I refuse to reference the .500 mark in my writing and I invite you to boycott it too, because it's inaccurate. If you're at .500, that should mean you have won the same number of games that you've lost. Simple. Yet that's not what it means in the NHL.

            Solution is Right in Front of Us

            Quickly, name the only two Pacific Division teams that are truly above .500?

            While the Flames sit fifth in the Pacific standings as viewed today, Calgary (20-17-2) at 20-19 joins first place San Jose (23-13-2) at 23-15 as the only two teams that are truly above .500.  Anaheim (19-12-8) is actually 19-20. Edmonton (19-13-7) is also 19-20 and Los Angeles (19-15-4) is 19-19.

            One argument for the extra point is it keeps more teams in the playoff races for longer. That's probably true, but that doesn't make it right.

            Now I'm not advocating getting rid of the loser point, because I know that will never happen, but there is an obvious fix right there in front of our eyes and it's not a new concept either.

            The obvious solution is to adopt the three-point model that the IIHF uses at international competitions like the Olympics and the World Junior Championships going on right now in Toronto and Montreal. For what it's worth, this same point system is also in place in the KHL.
            • Win in regulation - 3 points
            • Win in overtime/shootout - 2 points
            • Lose in overtime/shootout - 1 point
            • Lose in regulation - 0 points

            Would this point system result in teams being more spread out and the perception of less teams in the playoff race? Maybe, but there are advantages too. With three points up for grabs for a regulation win, teams would have the ability to close the gap quickly when playing teams in front of them in the standings. Also, think of how important divisional clashes would become. Forget about the four-point game, now they'd be known as six-pointers.

            Final Word

            It's time to quit this charade that makes the NHL look like a Mickey Mouse league.

            Regulation wins are different than overtime wins and should be categorized and compensated differently, just like overtime losses and regulation losses already have different values.

            It's not that difficult of a concept to wrap your head around.

            To the outrageously weak counter-argument we've heard over the years that a three-point system likely wouldn't have made much of a difference in the past anyway, don't view that as a reason not to change the current system, but view that as every reason to change the system.

            While it may not impact the standings, it would impact the league as a whole, as it would make the NHL look far more credible.

            Come on NHL, clean it up.

            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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