Monday, March 27, 2017

He's Back: Now Over 200 points, Rejuvenated Gaudreau Makes Flames a Formidable Foe



Here's Johnny.

That sound you hear, that gust of wind you feel, that's not a Chinook sweeping through Calgary.

It's the collective exhale from Flames fans, who all season have been waiting for this version of Johnny Gaudreau to finally show up.

This is what everyone was expecting back in October when the diminutive 23-year-old signed his name on a lucrative five-year, $40.5 million deal with an annual salary of $6.75 million.

Here's Johnny, alright. If you're an opposing team in his path right now, look out.

If you're familiar with the visual that accompanies that infamous line from The Shining, uttered by Jack Nicholson as he fiercely smashes his way through the bathroom door with an axe in pursuit of Shelley Duvall, well, that might very well be the same mental image opposition defencemen are imagining these days as they prepare to go up against No. 13. When Gaudreau is feeling it like he is right now, there may not be anyone in the league more dangerous.

It's the re-emergence of Gaudreau -- alongside his pal Sean Monahan -- that makes the Calgary Flames a deeper and far more formidable threat heading into this post-season than two years ago.



The Long Road Back

If you woke up on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 21, and skimmed through the NHL's top 100 scorers, one particular name was conspicuously absent.

You wouldn't have found the name Johnny Gaudreau.

Sure, he had missed three weeks with a broken finger but not anywhere to be found in the top 100? This is a guy that was tied for sixth in league scoring as a sophomore just one year ago.

But everything changed that night at the Bridgestone Arena in Music City.

In the ongoing carousel at right wing on the used-to-be-but-no-longer-referred-to-as-the-top-line, next guy up in that slot after the stubbornly tried but failed experiment of Alex Chiasson was Micheal Ferland, someone who earned the audition with his impactful play on the fourth line.

This wasn't the first time he had been tried there, former coach Bob Hartley tried it on more than one occasion. But this was the first time Glen Gulutzan had given that trio a try.

It worked. Instantly.

Ferland scored twice that night against the Predators while Gaudreau had four assists. Monahan chipped in with three helpers.

From that point forward, the team got on a roll -- winning 10 straight games -- and so did that line, in the process wrestling back the label of the team's No. 1 unit.

Best Record since Feb. 21:

1. Calgary - 17 gm, 14-3-0, 28 pts 
2. Chicago - 17 gm, 12-3-2, 26 pts
3. Nashville - 17 gm, 11-3-3, 25 pts
4. Columbus - 16 gm, 11-3-2, 24 pts
5. Carolina - 19 gm, 9-4-6, 24 pts


Heating up at the Right Time

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Calgary is boasting a top-six right now that can arguably match up with any team in the West.

Make no mistake, the 3M line is still very much in the same groove as they've been in all season, but with the Flames finally being led production-wise by two guys that should be the offensive catalysts, this is a club that has the ability to do some damage in its second playoff appearance in the last eight years.

Ferland patrolling the right side on that top line has done wonders to rejuvenate Gaudreau's game. There's his heavy forecheck, tenacity, punishing hits, deceptive speed, smart offensive instincts and ability to go and retrieve a puck in the corner. Maybe his best attribute is his wicked shot that is one of the league's best kept secrets.

But also not to be forgotten, he also adds a presence to that line that Lady Byng-winning Jiri Hudler never did. Now if you want to slash No. 13, you might want to think again. Safe to say there's some persuasive video to be found on YouTube that shows a side of Ferland you may not want to tangle with.

The difference since that line has been put together has been staggering.

After Monday night's NHL action if you go and skim through the top scorers since that point, you don't have to go very far to find Gaudreau's name, or Monahan's for that matter.

Scoring Leaders since Feb. 21:

1. Nikita Kucherov TB, 17 gm, 17-14-31
2. Johnny Gaudreau CGY, 17 gm, 6-17-23
T3. Patrick Kane CHI, 17 gm, 14-8-22
T3. Jack Eichel BUF, 16 gm, 10-12-22
T5. Brad Marchand BOS, 16 gm, 12-9-21
T5. Sean Monahan CGY, 17 gm, 7-14-21
T5. Connor McDavid EDM, 16 gm, 6-15-21
T5. Ryan Getzlaf ANA, 14 gm, 3-18-21


Five weeks ago, Gaudreau's points 'peer group' consisted of guys like Kyle Palmeiri, Sam Gagner, Travis Zajac, Mike Fisher and Jonathan Marchesseault.

Since that point, now it's Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand, Connor McDavid, Ryan Getzlaf and Jack Eichel. Oh, and his centre is right there in the mix also. Now that's more like it.


Top Line is Scorching Hot

"We’re building chemistry every single game which is nice," said Gaudreau after the win over the Avalanche. "Good time of the season to do it too. I think we played well tonight."

Monahan concurs.

"It’s a big time of the year. We’ve been talking about that the last little while," said the 22-year-old. "We’re trying to step up and do whatever we can to help this team. Right now when things are rolling good things happen.”

Plus-minus, for what it's worth, paints a similar story.

Gaudreau used to be tied with a group that included ex-Flame Joe Colborne at minus-18. That ranked him 798th. For real. Honestly, I didn't even realize there were that many players in the league. Monahan (minus-16) was only marginally better at 783rd.

Again, the difference before and after Feb. 21 has been black and white, or red and black if you prefer.

Since that game in Nashville, Gaudreau's plus-15 is second-best in the NHL. The only guy better than that has been Monahan (plus-17). In fact, Flames own the top three rungs with Dougie Hamilton (plus-14) alone in third.

Goaltender Brian Elliott likes what he's seen from the trio.

"It looks like a good mixture of everything," said Elliott. "Johnny has that dangerous breakaway speed, Mony has the eyes to find him and Ferly with that lethal shot. If they find him, it's probably in the back of the net. all those guys put together, it's a good line for us."


Depth Equals Dangerous

The Gaudreau line flying high heading into the playoffs is a movie we've seen before.

Two seasons ago with Hudler running shotgun with that same duo, that line was scorching hot over the final 5-6 weeks of the season.

Then the offence dried up. That line struggled mightily in the post-season and while Calgary was still able to slip past Vancouver in round one, death came swiftly in round two at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

Reason for optimism if you're a Flames fan that this post-season could play out differently is this club's greater depth.

Two years ago, the fall off after the top line production-wise was dramatic. In the six weeks leading up to the post-season, the best of the rest up front points-wise -- besides Backlund -- were Lance Bouma, Josh Jooris, Mason Raymond, David Jones and Matt Stajan -- all with seven points apiece.

When the post-season opened in Vancouver, the No. 2 line consisted of right-out-of-junior and fresh-off-shoulder-surgery Sam Bennett -- wearing No. 63 -- with all of one career regular season game under his belt, and Colborne.

This time around, Backlund -- having a career-best season himself -- has Michael Frolik and impact rookie Matthew Tkachuk with him. I don't need to remind you how good they've been all season. In comparing the top six right now to 2014-15, it's a massive upgrade.


Solid Foundation for Years to Come

This hot stretch for Gaudreau -- he has nine points during a five-game points streak -- has pushed his career totals to 201 points.

His assist on Ferland's second period goal made him the fastest a Flames player has reached 200 points to begin his career in the last 25 years.

Monahan, who just reached this same milestone three weeks ago, did it in 302 games. It took Gaudreau 226 games.

Hs is the eighth fastest to 200 points in team history, getting there three games quicker than Hakan Loob.


20 Fastest Flames to Reach 200 Points (to start career) 

1. Kent Nilsson - 130 gm
2. Guy Chouinard - 158 gm
3. Joe Nieuwendyk - 173 gm
4. Theoren Fleury - 193 gm
5. Sergei Makarov - 199 gm
6. Paul Reinhart - 212 gm
7. Gary Suter - 219 gm
8. Johnny Gaudreau - 226 gm
9. Hakan Loob - 229 gm
10. Al MacInnis - 233 gm
11. Robert Reichel - 241 gm
12. Carey Wilson - 254 gm
13. Joel Otto - 267 gm
T14. Sean Monahan - 302 gm
T14. German Titov - 302 gm
16. Dion Phaneuf - 312 gm
17. Jarome Iginla -  314 gm
18. Gary Roberts - 321 gm
19. Jim Peplinski - 334 gm
20. Cory Stillman - 343 gm


Meanwhile, Gaudreau is also the eighth youngest to reach 200 points since the Flames relocated to Calgary in 1980. Monahan was second-youngest to do it, just three days older than Robert Reichel.

To have two core pieces of your forward group both hit 200 career points before age 24 and for them to be linemates. That's a nice foundation to build from upfront and sets this team up for long-term success moving forward.


20 Youngest Flames to Reach 200 Points (to start career) 
(Date of 200th point, age at the time)

1. Robert Reichel, Nov. 11, 1993 - 22 years, 139 days
2. Sean Monahan, Mar. 3, 2017 - 22 years, 142 days
3. Theoren Fleury, Mar. 26, 1991 - 22 years, 270 days
4. Joe Nieuwendyk, Oct. 27, 1989 - 23 years, 47 days
5. Paul Reinhart, Mar. 27, 1983 - 23 years, 81 days
6. Jarome Iginla, Oct. 12, 2000 - 23 years, 103 days
7. Al MacInnis, Nov. 24, 1986 - 23 years, 136 days
8. Johnny Gaudreau, Mar. 27, 2017 - 23 years, 226 days
9. Gary Suter, Mar. 26, 1988 - 23 years, 276 days
10. Dion Phaneuf, Mar. 14, 2009 - 23 years, 338 days
12. Jim Peplinski, Dec. 5, 1984 - 24 years, 42 days
12. Gary Roberts, Mar. 2, 1991 - 24 years, 283 days
13. Kent Nilsson, Oct. 21, 1981 - 25 years, 51 days
14. Carey Wilson, Nov. 3, 1987 - 25 years, 168 days
15. Guy Chouinard, Jan. 4, 1983 - 26 years, 76 days
16. Hakan Loob, Oct. 22, 1986 - 26 years, 111 days
17. Cory Stillman, Nov. 10, 2000 - 26 years, 326 days
18. Joel Otto, Jan. 7, 1989 - 27 years, 70 days
19. Mikael Backlund, Jan. 4, 2017 - 27 years, 293 days
20. Jamie Macoun, Feb. 11, 1990 - 28 years, 178 days


Final Word

The Flames four-game homestand continues Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings. With a regulation win, they'll clinch a playoff spot. Rolling into town after that are the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks -- the latter mired in a six-game losing streak.


Last year, nobody scored more points at home than Gaudreau. While his home-road splits have been far more even this season -- in fact, 30 of his 58 points have been on the road -- that doesn't mean No. 13 is any less of a threat when he's wearing his home red sweater and performing in front of the adoring C of Red.

Given the recent role he's on, the chemistry that unit has with Ferland, and how that line performed Monday night in combining for eight points, it should be an exciting week to be at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

"I'm proud of the guys and the spot they've put themselves in. A lot of hard work went into that and now we need to finish it off," said Gulutzan. "We want to do it ourselves. We think the good teams get themselves into the playoffs themselves, they don't wait for help."

Heads up Red Mile, things are about to get very busy.




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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    Monday, March 20, 2017

    FF80F Podcast: Episode 13 - Breaking Down Potential Playoff Match-ups with Wes Gilbertson



    With Calgary sizzling hot and seemingly playoff bound, PostMedia beat writer Wes Gilbertson stopped by for a good solid hour of commercial-free Flames talk. Download it to your phone or iPod next time you're going out to walk the dog, play it in your car via Bluetooth while you commute to work, or just stream if via your desktop computer while you're supposedly 'working'.

    There are lots of ways to consume a podcast -- pick one, and enjoy!


    Topics Broached
    • Last time Wes was my guest, it was Nov. 12 and the team had pretty much hit rock bottom. We discuss the biggest factors in the turnaround.
    • We look forward to potential playoff match-ups and what would be the most favourable and least favourable opponents.
    • We debate who are the wild cards moving forwards. Which players maybe have more to give or are the players to watch come the playoffs.
    • We answered a bunch of reader/listener questions submitted via Facebook (or Twitter).

    Options to Download/Listen

    You are now able to download Flames at 80 Decibels from all your favourite podcast locations, as well as through your regular podcast player or app. Here are a few of the more popular spots where you can download the latest episode:

    Catching up On What You've Missed

    The podcast began last summer as an experiment. I hope you'll agree, the quality has come a long way since that first one that was ripped off solo, on a whim and literally at midnight one lazy July evening.

    This is the seventh one done during the season. While initially I had concerns about how long each podcast would remain relevant, the insight my guests have brought and the manner in which we're tackling topics make them worthwhile listens long after after they're recorded.


    Past podcasts:
    • Episode 12 (1:26:22) - On Feb. 11 with the Flames just back from their road trip that included hockey in Central Park, Kristen Odland stopped by. We talked trade deadline, Dennis Wideman, Vegas expansion draft and my recently unveiled top 20 prospects.
    • Episode 11 (1:11:40) - On Jan. 30 with the NHL at the all-star break, Flames radio colour analyst Peter Loubardias popped by. He peeled back the onion a little on Glen Gulutzan, we theorized what's wrong with Gaudreau and Bennett, and discussed the evolution of 4th lines.
    • Episode 10 (1:23:00) - On Dec. 23, Aaron Vickers made his way up to my Saddledome studio. Vickers is the brains behind prospect publication Future Considerations and also covers the Flames for NHL.com. We chatted lots bout Calgary prospects at the WJC.
    • Episode 9 (1:10:36) - On Dec. 5, Jermain Franklin joined me for some Flames talk. In addition to sharing some stories about life at TSN, Flames topics broached included Chad Johnson, are the red-hot Flames for real and first-third surprises and disappointments.
    • Episode 8 (1:04:49) - On Nov. 12, it was time for Wes Gilbertson from PostMedia to have his say. We talked some more about the coach, special teams, Nik Grossmann and various hot topics.
    • Episode 7 (1:01:01) - On Oct. 30, Kristen Odland from PostMedia stopped by and we looked back on a roller-coaster month of October. We also discussed Glen Gulutzan's unique coaching methods.
    • Episode 6 (58:27) - On Sept. 20, before leaving the rookie tournament in Penticton, Ryan Leslie from Flames TV stopped by and we discussed which prospects stood out and  also who didn't. Includes some great insight into who Matthew Tkachuk is off the ice and his background.
    • Episode 5 (1:08:24) - On Aug. 28, longtime Flames beat reporter Scott Cruickshank from PostMedia stopped by to look ahead to the season as well as reminisce about the 2004 Stanley Cup run and what it was like to cover that series both home and away. 
    • Episode 4 (1:30:59) - On Aug. 14, Ryan Leslie from Flames TV stopped by and provided a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes with the Flames -- on the charter, etc. Other topics included who will play RW on the top line, who will benefit the most from the new coach.
    • Episode 3 (1:34:01) - On Aug. 5, I connected with Rob Kerr again, this time to dig into a variety of other off-season topics like the Gaudreau/Monahan contract 'stalemate', Troy Brouwer and expansion.
    • Episode 2 (1:28:43) - On July 19 in a more technically-sound second episode (thanks to the use of actual broadcast-quality audio equipment), Rob Kerr joined me as co-host and we debated the Flames season-opening roster. 
    • Episode 1 (48:04) - In the July 11 impromptu pilot, featuring zero technology, I recapped development camp. This was was a solo effort with sub-part technology but fresh on the heels of the prospects being in town, lots of good stuff discussed.

    Have you enjoyed the podcasts so far? Please stop by iTunes and rate the podcast as I understand this will make it easier to find for newcomers. Thanks for listening.



    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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      Saturday, March 18, 2017

      Smart, Smart Player: Tkachuk's High Hockey IQ on Display Once Again



      "Hockey sense," replied Glen Gulutzan with conviction, not even waiting for my question to be finished.

      The Calgary Flames coach wasn't being rude in his post-game presser on Friday night. He just knew where I was going with my query and it's a conversation that's not new. Far from it.

      Every game, it seems, we're left marvelling about a particular play made by 19-year old Matthew Tkachuk.

      He may be a rookie in terms of NHL experience but he's got the hockey IQ of a 10-year veteran and it's on display every night.

      "His gamesmanship, his hockey sense, his ice awareness..." continued Gulutzan. You get the sense the coach is already already running out of descriptors for the mouthguard-chewing buzz saw, who continues to turn in impactful efforts night after night as a central figure on the Flames top line.

      Make no mistake. This isn't your run-of-the-mill, replaceable, mix-and-match left winger just along for the ride with the veteran pairing of Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. He's very much an equal contributor to the 3M line, leading the way with a goal, an assist and a plus-3 in Calgary's 3-1 win over Dallas.


      On a night where the spotlight was shared by two guys expected to deliver big performances at this time of year -- 31-year-old goaltender Brian Elliott with 24 stops for his 10th straight win, 33-year-old team captain Mark Giordano with a dominant one-goal-and-two-assist evening -- right there with them with another superb game was Tkachuk, a kid who is barely old enough to shave.

      "I don’t really think about that too much," said Tkachuk post-game, when asked about being an important part of the team."I just want to be part of a team that can make it to the playoffs. Ultimately the goal is to win. Everybody is doing everything they can to make the playoffs."


      Always Alert, Always Aware

      The play on this night that made everyone stand up and take notice was on the Flames third goal.

      After intercepting the puck deep in his own end, Frolik flipped it high to clear it out of the zone but while the puck was in the air, it was deflected by the high stick of Tkachuk. Immediately up went the arm of referee Trevor Harrison. As soon as Calgary would touch the puck, the play would be blown dead and the face-off would be back in the Flames end.

      Well aware of the situation, Tkachuk follows the puck up the ice and over the Stars blueline but doesn't touch it. He buys a little bit of space with a subtle shove on Stars defenceman Greg Pateryn. Then with the puck stopped, Tkachuk waited nearby like a hunter that had just set a trap.

      Sure enough, falling right into that trap was Stars forward Adam Cracknell, who skated by and tried to pick up the puck only to be ambushed by Tkachuk, who immediately knocked away with a quick stick and got the puck back to Giordano at the blueline, whose long wrist shot deflected in off Dan Hamhuis.

      "Just a smart, smart play," said Giordano. "His hands, he's so quick in tight. That's his real strength. The guys touches the puck and he immediately strips it from him."

      You can see why last season in the annual OHL Coaches Poll, Tkachuk was runner-up for smartest player in the Western Conference, behind Dylan Strome.

      "Just his awareness, that's why he's so good," Giordano added. "He's aware at the blueline, he's aware in our own zone and he's aware around their net. He's going to be a good player for a long time because of that."

      For another example of his intelligence, Gulutzan offered up a subtle decision Tkachuk made in a game earlier in the week.

      "You saw it with a change the other day," said the coach. "One of our guys was trapped on the ice. (Tkachuk) recognizes it, takes his spot, and tells him to change. He's just got real good game awareness."


      Playoff Race Bringing out his Best

      With 11 games to go in the regular season and the weight of the games steadily increasing as the pressure of the playoff race mounts, you see zero signs of Tkachuk wearing down -- although if he did, you certainly couldn't blame him.

      This is a kid coming off the shortest summer of anyone on the Flames roster. His overtime goal that won the London Knights the Memorial Cup came on May 29. Add in development camp in early July, U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in late July (although he did not skate), Flames rookie camp in mid-September, it's been seemingly non-stop.

      Yet as if the team is popping a fresh pair of Duracell batteries in him every night, he just goes and goes and goes. If he's feeling fatigued in the slightest, he's hiding it well.

      His two points on Friday -- he also neatly steered in a slick feed from Giordano for the game's opening goal -- gives him 46 points on the season. That has him tied for third on the team behind Backlund and Johnny Gaudreau, who each have 49 points. Not bad.

      Since the 80s, the only Flames rookies to score more points in a season have been:
      • Johnny Gaudreau (2014-15), 24-40-64
      • Jarome Iginla (1996-97), 21-29-50
      • Dion Phaneuf (2005-06), 20-29-49

      I fully expect him to be second on that list by the time the season ends.


      Final Word

      It's been a phenomenal season and the native of Scottsdale, Arizona, is deserving of way more Calder consideration than he's getting due to the off-the-charts calibre of rookie class in the NHL this season.

      Is he the best first-year player in the league? No. Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are legit. Mitch Marner is a tremendous talent. Zach Werenski is having a standout season in Columbus. But any other season, he'd be right there in the mix as none of those names mentioned is saddled with greater defensive responsibility than Tkachuk as part of Calgary's shutdown line.

      "He's a great player, very smart," said Backlund. "He's very strong on his stick and he's good at stealing pucks."

      He's also extremely good at getting under the skin of his opponent. All season he's been the NHL's runaway leader in drawing penalties.

      Minor Penalties Drawn per 60 Minutes (min of 30 games):

      1. Matthew Tkachuk CGY, 2.59
      2. Nick Cousins PHI, 2.13
      3. Jason Zucker MIN, 1.96
      4. Travis Konecny PHI, 1.91
      5. William Carrier BUF, 1.91


      Considering the impact Finnish pest Ville Nieminen had for Calgary in the 2004 Stanley Cup run, I am fascinated to see how Tkachuk's game will translate in the playoffs. I'm fully expecting him to be that much better, if that's even possible.

      With the Flames on a 12-1-1 roll in their last 14 games, currently one point back of the Anaheim Ducks for second place in the Pacific, it's looking more and more like we'll find out in just over three weeks time.



      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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      Tuesday, March 14, 2017

      Outhouse to Penthouse: Flames Have Morphed Into One of the Best Teams in the NHL



      Truth be told, tying a franchise record was something many envisioned the Calgary Flames doing four months ago.

      Just not this type of record.

      At the time, a 5-10-1 start to the season had riled up fans calling for coach Glen Gulutzan to be fired.

      For his poor choice of coach, never mind his blunder in trading for Brian Elliott, frustrated fans were calling for GM Brad Treliving to be fired.

      Angered by dreadful special teams -- the power play in particular, irritated fans were calling for assistant coach Dave Cameron to be fired.

      Around the same time Donald Trump was being voted in as President, the only thing on the mind of some hockey fans in Calgary was voting out the Flames current administration. In the spirit of Trump's old television show The Apprentice -- you're fired, you're fired, and you're fired.


      Was the Worst of the Worst of Times

      Playing abysmal .344 hockey heading into a mid-November Tuesday night clash with the Wild in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the dubious franchise record that looked very much endangered was for futility -- lowest points percentage in a season.

      Revisiting each of the 43 seasons since Atlanta entered the NHL, the 1997-98 Flames under coach Brian Sutter, hold the distinction of being the worst club in franchise history. With a 26-41-15 record, a .409 points percentage made it the all-time worst campaign, just behind the 1972-73 expansion season for Atlanta (25-38-15, .417).

      But surely this club with its clueless coach, mistake-prone GM and shoddy special teams, was going to threaten that mark.

      Nope.

      Instead of tying a record for futility, which would have surprised nobody had you asked them four months ago, the club instead made the good kind of history on Monday night, winning its 10th game in a row.


      Not since Oct. 14 to Nov. 3, 1978 when the Flames were in Atlanta, had the team rattled off 10 consecutive victories.


      Perceived Turning Point

      Many will point to the night seven weeks ago at the Bell Center in Montreal when Gulutzan ripped his team after a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens, as the pivot point in the season.

      You can see why too.

      With one game to go until the NHL's all-star break, Calgary went into the five-day layoff on a high thanks to a 3-2 overtime win in Ottawa, Johnny Gaudreau notching the game-winning goal. The Flames have been the hottest team in the NHL since that point and it's not even close.

      Best NHL Teams Since Jan. 26 (by winning percentage):

      1. Calgary, 18 gm, 15-2-1, 31 pts, .861 PT%, +20 goals
      T2. Boston, 18 gm, 13-5-0, 26 pts, .722 PT%, +22 goals
      T2. Chicago, 18 gm, 13-5-0, 26 pts, .722 PT%, +20 goals
      4. Pittsburgh, 21 gm, 13-4-4, 30 pts, .714 PT%, +18 goals
      5. Tampa Bay, 19 gm, 11-4-4, 26 pts, .684 PT%, +11 goals


      However, as dreadful as that sequence of games were leading up to Gulutzan's eruption in Montreal -- Calgary falling behind in four consecutive games 4-0 (versus Nashville), 5-0 (versus Edmonton), 4-0 (in Toronto) and 5-0 (in Montreal) -- the club was still sitting in a playoff spot. Sure, they were barely clinging to the second wild card, but nonetheless they were still in the top eight.


      Real Turning Point

      For me, the turnaround traces back to two months before that.

      It all goes back to Nov. 15 at the Xcel Energy Center, the night most famous as the night of the Wild's 21-slash salute on Gaudreau. The chippy game would culminate with the Flames star forward exiting the game with a broken finger that would require surgery and would sideline him for three weeks.

      Remember the setting that evening. The worst team in the NHL up against the second-best team in the West and in Minnesota's home barn where they had lost just once up until that point.

      On a goal six minutes into the first period by Gaudreau, a real dandy at that, and 27 stirling saves from Chad Johnson, Calgary won 1-0. Two unexpected points and while it looked a mere blip at the time given the casualty from that game, it would turn out to be the start of something special.

      Without Gaudreau moving forward, the team realized that now more than ever, they needed to play the way Gulutzan had been imploring them to play. They had to play the system the first-year coach had been trying to instill. No one player was going to be able to lead this team, it had to be a collective team effort.

      And on a dime, that's when the turnaround came.


      Season of Two Extremes

      In Gaudreau's absence, Calgary went 6-3-1. When he returned, the Flames promptly whipped Anaheim 8-3 at the Saddledome, Gaudreau opening the scoring on his first shift.

      Playing .344 hockey prior to that point in mid-November, Calgary has played .670 hockey in 53 games since. It's been an absolutely staggering turnaround.


      For skeptics around the league clinging to the notion that this run is merely a hot streak, that would be inaccurate. We're talking about a four month sample size and the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.

      For context to how good this team has played over that period, only once in the franchise's previous 43 seasons have the Flames played .670 or greater hockey in a season. That was 1988-89 when under the guidance of coach Terry Crisp, Calgary won its only Stanley Cup.


      Best Five Seasons in Flames Franchise History (by winning percentage):

      1. 1988-89, 80 gm, 54-17-9, 117 pts, .731 PT%
       < 2016-17, 53 gm, 34-16-3, 71 pts, .670 PT% >
      2. 1987-88, 80 gm, 48-23-9, 105 pts.656, PT%
      3. 2005-06, 82 gm, 46-25-11, 103 pts, .628 PT%
      4. 1990-91, 80 gm, 46-26-8, 100 pts, .625 PT%
      5. 1989-90, 80 gm, 42-23-15, 99 pts, .619 PT%


      Obviously, we're a long way from the season being over, but this historical context gives you a sense of just how good this team has played the past four months.

      Across the league, the only team with a better record in the West over this period has been the Minnesota Wild. Yes, that's the same Wild that Calgary swept in their three-game season series.


      Best NHL Teams Since Nov. 15 (by winning percentage):

      1. Columbus, 55 gm, 37-14-4, 78 pts, .709 PT%, +45 goals
      2. Minnesota, 53 gm, 35-13-5, 75 pts, .708 PT%, +46 goals
      3. Washington, 54 gm, 35-13-6, 76 pts, .704 PT%, +66 goals
      4. Pittsburgh, 53 gm, 33-13-7, 73 pts, .689 PT%, +42 goals
      T5. Calgary, 53 gm, 34-16-3, 71 pts, .670 PT%, +24 goals
      T5. San Jose, 53 gm, 32-14-7, 71 pts, .670 PT%, +29 goals
      7. Chicago, 52 gm, 32-17-3, 67 pts, .644 PT%, +16 goals
      8. Ottawa, 52 gm, 30-17-5, 65 pts, .625 PT%, +8 goals
      9. Anaheim, 53 gm, 29-17-7, 65 pts, .613 PT%, +5 goals
      10. NY Rangers, 52 gm, 27-17-8, 62 pts, .611 PT%, +12 goals


      Special teams has experienced a similar turnaround over this same period.

      On Nov. 15, Calgary's power play (9.4 percent) ranked 29th, only ahead of Ottawa (9.3). Since then, the Flames have operated at a 23.6 percent clip, which is second to Buffalo (24.6).

      On the same date, the Flames penalty kill (73.0 percent) also ranked 29th, only ahead of Chicago (66.7). Since then, Calgary has been a much-improved 83.5 percent, which ranks them sixth over that time period.


      Final Word

      There is still a long way to go this season and as the players continue to say, just making the playoffs remains their focus.

      In comparing the Flames, Ducks and Oilers remaining schedules, Calgary does have the more difficult final stretch. But does that even matter? The Flames have fared just fine against most of the NHL's top teams:
      • Won all three games against Minnesota
      • Won two of three against San Jose
      • Won both against Pittsburgh
      • Won both against Ottawa
      • Also have wins over Chicago, Columbus, Montreal and Anaheim

      "We're beating some good teams, we're playing some good hockey, but we've still got a ways to go.," says Mark Giordano. "To put together a streak like this at this time of year, we control our own fate down the stretch."

      That they do. Now 10 points clear of the Los Angeles Kings with only 13 games to go. It would take a monumental collapse to not qualify for the post-season now.

      Even if Calgary was to revert to playing .344 hockey for the rest of the year, just like they played for the first five weeks, that still gets them to 91 points. That would force LA to win 10 of its final 14 games. For reference, the Kings have won just six of their last 14.

      “It’s that confidence," says Elliott. "It’s a little bit of a rollercoaster ride and you have to stay right in the middle. To have that confidence to do that, to not get too up or too down, that’s what it takes to win at this time of year and we’re learning how to do that on a nightly basis."

      Elliott has been a big reason behind the team's strong play of late. In his last 15 starts, he's 13-1-1 with a 1.91 goals-against average, a .934 save percentage and two shutouts.

      Flames will go for the record Wednesday night when Boston visits the Saddledome. The Bruins are the NHL's second-hottest team since Jan. 26, but against this Flames club with a coach that people are now on board with, a GM no longer in the bad books and with dangerous special teams, it's the Bruins that have to face a tough opponent, more so than the opposite.


      Photo Credit: Johnny Gaudreau photo at the top by Jeff McIntosh of The Canadian Press



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      Thursday, March 09, 2017

      Rarities: Flames Pursuing Home Ice Advantage and/or a Playoff Match-up with the Oilers


      The memorable sequence began with feisty Darren McCarty barrelling into the Ducks zone and laying a heavy lick on defenceman Ruslan Salei in the corner, jarring the puck off his stick.

      As the glass rattled, the Saddledome crowd went wild.

      Daymond Langkow corralled the loose puck along the sideboards and sent it behind the net into the waiting soft hands of Kristian Huselius.

      Set up behind the net like Wayne Gretzky in his prime, Huselius fakes once, then stick-handles, then stick-handles some more. Head up the whole time, he finally spots an open man and zips a pass in front where McCarty, carving his way through the slot, one-times the puck inside the goal post on Ilya Bryzgalov.

      Game over.

      April 21, 2006, the one and only time in the last 20 years in which Calgary has opened the Stanley Cup playoffs at home, and the game ends dramatically 9:45 into overtime.

      While 19,289 raucous fans went home happy on that night, that wouldn't be the case 12 days later. In a brutal loss fans are still healing from -- considering a second round match-up with the Edmonton Oilers was lying in wait -- Calgary laid an egg in game 7, getting outshot 31-22 and losing 3-0 to Anaheim to get eliminated.

      Stunningly, especially for those old enough to remember all those years the provincial rivals were the powers of the Smythe Division, that was the only time since 1990-91 in which the Flames and Oilers have both made the playoffs in the same season.

      Ugh.


      Getting Back to Today

      Fast forward 11 years and are we finally on the verge of getting that long awaited Battle of Alberta that we were denied that disappointing Wednesday night back on May 3, 2006?

      It definitely could happen as we enter a compelling stretch run in which after Thursday's games, the Oilers and Flames are now tied for third in the Pacific Division with 78 points, two points back of Anaheim. Edmonton holds a game in hand.

      Adding to the drama up north, of course, and this is not something anyone needs to be reminded of, 2005-06 when Edmonton ended up going all the way to the final before losing in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes, was also the last time the Oilers made the playoffs.

      So Calgary, looking to open at home for the first time in 11 years. The Oilers just looking to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years.

      Two salivating storylines for Western Canadian hockey fans to follow over the season's final 30 days.


      Breaking Down the Remaining Schedule

      So how do the remaining schedules for these three teams compare? Here's a breakdown:


      Anaheim - 67 gm, 35-22-10 = 80 pts, 32 ROW
      • Remaining Split - 9 home, 6 road
      • Back-to-Backs - 3
      • Four-Pointers - 4 (vs Edm, at Edm, at Cgy, vs Cgy)
      • Elite Eight - 4 (vs Wsh, at SJ, vs NYR, vs Chi)
      • Playoff Bubble Teams - 3 (at Stl, vs Stl, vs LA) 
      • Virtually Eliminated - 4 (vs Buf, vs Wpg, at Van, at Wpg)
      • Cellar Dwellers - 0 

      Four games left with the Flames and Oilers is where the Ducks could pull away or be left behind. Beyond that, Anaheim would have the second easiest remaining schedule after Edmonton. Three opponents that the Ducks still have home-and-home series with St. Louis and Winnipeg. Know that the Blues and Jets will have a lot of fan support from Alberta for those games. Depending on the health of John Gibson, the three back-to-backs could also be a concern for coach Randy Carlyle.


      Edmonton - 66 gm, 35-23-8 = 78 pts, 31 ROW
      • Remaining Split - 11 home, 5 road
      • Back-to-Backs - 2
      • Four-Pointers - 2 (at Ana, vs. Ana)
      • Elite Eight - 4 (vs Pit, vs Mtl, vs SJ, at SJ)
      • Playoff Bubble Teams - 4 (vs Bos, vs LA, vs LA, at LA)
      • Virtually Eliminated - 4 (vs Dal, vs Van, at Van, vs Van)
      • Cellar Dwellers - 2 (at Col, vs Col)

      The heavy home schedule should give Edmonton the edge. Although having split the first two games of an eight-game homestand, the next two opponents are tough ones with Pittsburgh and Montreal on the docket consecutively. A home-and-home with lowly Colorado later in March should be money in the bank. Beginning March 19, Edmonton begins a stretch in which seven of nine games are against California teams.


      Calgary - 67 gm, 37-26-4 = 78 pts, 34 ROW
      • Remaining Split - 8 home, 7 road
      • Back-to-Backs - 0
      • Four-Pointers - 2 (vs Ana, at Ana)
      • Elite Eight - 4 (vs Pit, at Wsh, vs SJ, at SJ)
      • Playoff Bubble Teams - 6 (vs Bos, vs LA, at Nsh, at Stl, vs LA, at LA) 
      • Virtually Eliminated - 2 (at Wpg, vs Dal)
      • Cellar Dwellers - 1 (vs Col)

      The advantage the Flames wield is their high number of regulation/overtime wins (ROW), which will give them the tie-breaker if they finish even in points with Anaheim or Edmonton. The difficult closing stretch of six straight against California teams has been well documented. Heading out East one more time is what differentiates the Flames schedule from Edmonton. A three-game trip in two weeks features difficult stops in Washington, Nashville and St. Louis.


      Playoffs Have Essentially Already Begun

      Five weeks from today, the official version of the Stanley Cup playoffs will already be nicely underway. Between now and then -- the Flames playing every other day until the end of the season -- are the unofficial playoffs.

      Drama, tension, angst, every game matters. Everything that's great about the post-season also applies to the stretch run.

      Of course, that's only because Calgary has done a phenomenal job of scratching and clawing its way back into contention.

      Since Nov. 15 when the Flames were 5-10-1 and dead last in the league with the worst winning percentage, Calgary has been the NHL's sixth best team, going 32-16-3.


      Narrowing the scope, since Jan. 24 and that 5-1 shellacking in Montreal when the Flames were 24-24-3 and clinging to the final wild card spot (Los Angeles and Vancouver were both one point back with three games in hand), Calgary has been the NHL's best team, going 13-2-1.


      Final Word

      The scenarios are plentiful for how this season ends for Calgary and Edmonton. They could both finish as high as second in the Pacific, or they could miss the playoffs altogether, or they could finish anywhere in between. Third in the division, either of the two wild card spots, all of those options are still in play.

      As a result, the Flames could meet the Oilers in round one, round two, or even round three in the Western Conference final. Now wouldn't that be something.

      Just imagine, one of them finishes in the second wild card and crosses over into the Central. The other stays in the Pacific. Both teams get past their first two opponents and voila, it's May, there's green grass and sunshine outside and there's a Battle of Alberta going on to determine which team represents the West in the Stanley Cup.

      While obviously that's a huge stretch, the far more realistic possibility for Calgary and one that's very achievable is opening the post-season in front of a boisterous C of Red.

      Should that happen and if you'll allow your imagination to run wild, you can even envision a winning goal very much like what unfolded 11 years ago.
      • Playing the role of McCarty, the physical presence laying the body and forcing a turnover, would be Micheal Ferland.
      • Playing the role of Langkow, the centre with the strong play along the boards to get the puck in deep, would be Sean Monahan.
      • Playing the role of Huselius, the crafty guy with the sublime passing ability, who sets up the winning goal, would be Johnny Gaudreau.

      Dare to dream, Flames fans. Dare to dream.



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      Monday, March 06, 2017

      Stability Breeds Success: Flames Have Won Seven in a Row While Icing an Identical Line-up



      Win. Rinse. Repeat.

      Life is good these days for Glen Gulutzan. His club riding a seven-game winning streak that suddenly has Calgary even in points with the Ducks, the first-year skipper has been on auto-pilot, rolling out the identical forward lines and D pairings game after game.


      The only hair out of place the last couple weeks was the opening 40 minutes of that wacky 6-5 overtime win in Nashville that started the streak. That night in the Calgary debut for Michael Stone, the 26-year-old former Coyote started on the third pairing with newly inked Matt Bartkowski, who had made his first Flames appearance the previous game.

      But by the end of the second period, Stone had already flip-flopped spots with Deryk Engelland and moved up alongside TJ Brodie. From that point forward, it's been same old, same old. No need to be spitballing alternate line combinations on the back of napkins, just these 18 guys and in these exact seats.

      Up front:
      • Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
      • Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland
      • Versteeg-Bennett-Brouwer
      • Bouma-Stajan-Chiasson

      On the blueline:
      • Giordano-Hamilton
      • Brodie-Stone
      • Bartkowski-Engelland

      Sunday afternoon's 5-2 triumph at the Saddledome over the New York Islanders must have been a coach's dream. All four lines in on the scoring with each contributing an even-strength goal. The Monahan line had two.

      "It's a huge luxury," says Gulutzan when asked about the benefits of having four lines contributing. "One of the things we have in our room is everybody has a role. Everybody matters if you walk through that locker room. It's not just a slogan.

      "We didn't want to be a one-line team, you need 20 guys to win, you really do."


      Backlund Line Continues to Impress

      Still deserving of top billing is the 3M line comprised of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and 19-year-old rookie Matthew Tkachuk.

      Dominant nearly every shift, it seems, what a goal they produced at 14:56 of the first period to touch off a firestorm of four goals in less than five minutes on the under-siege Thomas Greiss.

      If you were casually watching the game, you may have thought Calgary was on a five-on-three power play the way that trio -- joined by defencemen Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton -- controlled the puck. Go back to the defensive zone face-off in which Backlund outdueled John Tavares and Calgary essentially had possession for 52 seconds.


      There was one brief Islanders touch of the puck after Hamilton rimmed the puck around the end boards in the Isles zone but other than that, Frolik's goal was classic tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac-tic-tac-toe.



      According to Dobber Hockey, the 3M line has been the fifth most productive unit this season at even-strength in terms of raw points:
      1. Toronto: Van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Marner, 74 pts 
      2. Minnesota: Zucker-Koivu-Granlund, 70 pts 
      3. Chicago: Panarin-Anisimov-Kane, 68 pts
      4. Anaheim: Cogliano-Rakell-Perry, 65 pts 
      5. Calgary: Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik, 63 pts 

      The key thing to remember though is with the Backlund line, we're also talking about Calgary's primary shutdown line.

      "We've had some pretty good lines here that offensively could score and create but I don't think since I've been here, there's been a line that takes the onus in both ends and dominates," says captain Mark Giordano. "They've really been our best line all year. Tough match-ups, tough assignments, but they create a lot because they play the right way."

      Other than two games in mid-November when Tkachuk had a cut hand and Jan. 26 in Ottawa when they tried Frolik on the Gaudreau-Monahan line to try and get them kick-started, that line has been the team's backbone since Gulutzan first put them together on Oct. 24. When you've been together as a line for 57 games, it's no wonder they've established some strong chemistry.


      Ferland's Promotion was Key

      The key move that has helped the remaining forwards slot appropriately onto the other lines is Micheal Ferland moving up to play his off-wing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

      Their first time together as a line this year was also that night in Nashville and they enjoyed instant success as Ferland scored twice and Gaudreau broke out of a slump with four assists.

      Showcasing his wicked shot, Ferland notched his 13th goal on Sunday, tying him with Gaudreau. He has lit the lamp eight times in his last 15 games.

      Gulutzan says the decision to move the physical, 6-foot-2 winger onto that line was something they had been contemplating for a while.

      "It was always something we had in our minds," says Gulutzan. "You try to build players up. He spent a lot of time on the fourth line and did a great job."


      "Putting him there now and what he's bringing to that group. He doesn't need to be the skill-based guy, he needs to be Ferly and his attributes -- his skill, his toughness, his going to the net," Gulutzan said. "It's hard to play against him and that's what you get now from that line and it's helping."


      Bottom Six Has Been a Better Six

      With the top six settled, the Flames have been getting effective minutes from the fourth line too, albeit with limited expectations.

      Where the greater focus has been is the third unit of Kris Versteeg, Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer. While in general the results haven't been there as much as they would like, they've been better lately. Bennett, in particular, has been a lot more noticeable.

      On Sunday, they were the last of the lines to get in on the action, scoring 6:58 into the third to restore a four-goal cushion at 5-1. As all three broke in on a three-on-one, a nice pass from Bennett was finished off neatly by Versteeg for his second goal in as many games.

      "It's almost an internal competition with each line," says Versteeg. "Everyone knows what their job is so it's always nice when everybody contributes to a win."

      He says the benefits are many when you keep lines together.

      "You start to get chemistry and cohesiveness with everyone out there," says Versteeg, who is up to 12 goals. "It's nice to know where guys are on the ice and where they're going to be and understand tendencies and strengths of their game."



      Final Word

      Since the trade deadline, the buzz has been around when newly acquired Curtis Lazar will make his debut. Well, it won't be anytime soon as long as the team stays injury-free and keeps playing like they are.

      Soon, Lazar will know his popcorn peers Dennis Wideman and Freddie Hamilton better than his own parents.

      "We have good depth, we really do throughout our line-up," says Giordano. "Our six 'D', our four lines. In this league, you need different lines to step up every night. We feel like we've gained some consistency here in the last little bit.

      "It's nice every night to have different guys chipping in, having big nights, it feels good to come to the rink."

      It's a sentiment Monahan echoes.

      "When you're winning, the atmosphere is great," he says. "Right now, we're confident but we're not over confident. We know we still got a lot of work to do and we haven't proven anything."

      What Gulutzan likes best is everybody is a part of it.

      "What's going to take us far is when everybody feels like they're part of something bigger than themselves," he says.

      They'll attempt to make it eight straight victories for the first time since November 2005 when former Flames forward Paul Byron leads the Montreal Canadiens into the Saddledome on Thursday.

      As for what Calgary's line-up will look like that night, that part we already know.



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      Saturday, March 04, 2017

      Down and Out No More: Flames Rewarded For Their Resiliency During Red-Hot Run



      Crumple no more.

      A point of exasperation for Flames coach Glen Gulutzan over the first four months of the season was his club's unwillingness to stick with the program if they surrendered the game's first goal.

      The first-year coach had come in and implemented a new system designed to give his team the best chance at success, yet as soon as they got behind by a goal -- despite often having the edge in play up until that point -- that slightest form of adversity would result in his players immediately abandoning ship.

      Etched in my mind is the visual of Gulutzan standing outside the Flames dressing room post-practice. Ball cap on, skates still on, lamenting... or more so venting to the media, on how his club completely changes how they have to play when they get behind by a goal. One measly goal early in a game and they essentially panic.

      Shaking his head, the tone of a parent disappointed with their child's report card. Part frustrated, part perplexed. During those rocky first couple months, his words whispered that he was aggravated. His body language shouted it.

      It all came to a head in late January in Montreal when after another decent start for his team in terms of puck possession and shot generation, they gave up the first goal. On queue, the team collapsed. They lost 5-1 with no push-back whatsoever.

      "You play well, one bad thing happens, we crumple. We crumple," fumed Gulutzan that night in his infamous rant. "Everybody talks about our starts. Our starts? Our starts have been good. One little shot, it goes in, we crumple. We just crumple. We had no resolve to stay with it."

      My how things have changed.


      Resiliency Growing

      Lately, things have gotten a lot better and by "a lot", I mean a lot. No longer do the Flames collectively throw up their arms and feel sorry for themselves as soon as they fall behind. Now they stick with it and the positive results reflect that.
       
      An impressive 11-2-1 since that night at the Bell Centre, Calgary's last five wins including Friday night's 3-2 thriller over Detroit have each come after giving up the first goal.


      The Flames lead the league with 17 victories after falling behind 1-0. There's a resiliency now that was nowhere to be found six weeks ago.

      "Our team knows now what it needs to do on a night in, night out basis to win," said Gulutzan after Friday's victory. "We can get down a goal and they believe if they play the right way they can beat anybody on any given night."

      That's exactly what has been happening.

      "Our group has shown a lot of resiliency and you have to build that belief. You are what you repeatedly do," added Gulutzan.


      Took Time to Sink In

      Maybe it's just natural when a new coach comes in with a new system that when the results aren't there immediately, a vicious cycle begins.

      Players need wins in order to believe and trust that Gulutzan's system will actually work. Team won't win until the players truly believe, trust and play the coach's system.

      Think about it. How many times did fans fire the coach in November? How about in January? It should be expected and would only be human nature if deep down, there was also some skepticism among players too that the style of play the coach was preaching was going to work.

      "The mental belief is higher now than earlier in the year," confesses Backlund, who sniped the overtime winner on Friday, his 20th goal. "Not that we gave up earlier, but now we know we're a good team. We know we can come back and win these games. Earlier in the year, we got too down on ourselves and we just got too frustrated and that hurt us."

      When you're not fully bought in, it makes it awfully easy to change your game as soon as you get down and revert to what the players thought individually was a better way of playing. Except that wasn't working either.

      "We've talked about it in the room, Gully has talked lots about it. About believing in ourselves, that we have a good group in here, and just pushing ourselves to be better," Backlund says. "Also the results on the ice helps. In February, I just looked it up today and 9-2-1? That's pretty good. Beating some good teams on the road brings that confidence level up."


      Amazing Turnaround

      The numbers behind the results the last couple weeks are staggering when you compare to the fire drills that were going on in January.

      Seven times in the last eight games, Calgary has given up the first goal. Every single time the Flames have responded with the next goal to tie it.

      Over that span that dates back to the 3-1 comeback win over Philadelphia on Feb. 15, Calgary has outscored the opposition 18-5 after giving up that first goal. Talk about slamming the door in the face of the opposition.

      In contrast, in the five games prior to that when they gave up the first goal (starting Jan. 19 versus Nashville and through the ugly post-bye week 5-0 loss to Arizona on Feb. 13), they also consecutively gave up a second goal and a third goal and a fourth goal... and in three of the games also gave up a fifth.

      In that five-game stretch, Calgary was outscored 20-7 after giving up the first goal. Although that figure is flattering to the Flames given a bunch of their goals (e.g. Three goals in the final four minutes versus Nashville, Sam Bennett's goal with two seconds left in Montreal) came after the game was long over.

      Remove what I'd call the 'garbage time' goals in that stretch -- goals scored by either team in the last five minutes of the third period -- and the margin in which the Flames were outscored after falling behind was actually 18-2.

      Wow.


      Goalie Shares in the Blame

      Of course, the wherewithal to stick with it extends to the goaltender too and is Brian Elliott ever on a major roll right now.

      Six times during Elliott's current 9-1-1 run, he has given up the first goal. It came in the first period every time and usually was early in that period. A few of them he would have wanted back too.
      • Feb. 15 vs. Phi, 3rd shot at 1:30
      • Feb. 18 at Van, 1st shot at 12:44
      • Feb. 21 at TB, 4th shot at 6:17
      • Feb. 26 at Car, 5th shot at 4:54
      • Feb. 28 vs. LA, 7th shot at 8:42
      • Mar. 3 vs. Det, 3rd shot at 6:55

      Elliott's save percentage leading up to and including that first goal over those six games? A putrid .739. His save percentage after that first goal? An eye-popping .981. That's 153 saves on 156 shots. That's a guy that as is his reputation, competes and battles. Beat him once and he's going to do everything he can to make sure you don't get a second one past him.

      "Whenever there’s a hurdle, we’re not getting distracted by it or letting it get in our way," says Elliott, who has a .925 save percentage over his last 11 starts. "You move onto the next shift and play your best for that shift. The guys have really bought into that. It’s awesome to see."



      Final Word

      Falling behind early in games repeatedly is obviously not a recipe for long-term success.

      To put into context the Flames five comeback wins in the last nine days, that matches the number of wins Toronto has on the season when giving up the first goal of the game.

      What's most important for the club, there is a belief growing in that dressing room that they can play with anybody, that they can beat anybody.

      "A lot of confidence and swagger with this group right now," Backlund says. "We’re playing some good hockey. We get down a goal and we still believe we can come back."

      Six wins in a row, points in their last eight (7-0-1).  The Flames have been the seventh-best team in the NHL at 30-16-3 since they bottomed out as the NHL's worst club on Nov. 15.

      On the season, nobody has won more often when falling behind. At the same time, nobody has been better then Calgary when they take a lead to the third period (25-0-1). Those are two qualities that can make a team very dangerous in the playoffs.

      "We're playing the same way (now) and we know that we can start building goals and building goals and once we get a lead, we're pretty good with the lead," says Matthew Tkachuk. "Hopefully we can continue it."

      With Calgary six points up on Los Angeles now and seven ahead of the Blues, the post-season becomes a little bit closer to reality every passing day.



      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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