Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Not-So-Dirty Dozen: Improved Defensive Play Past 12 Games Has Flames on Path to Playoffs

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The skid marks on the road are still fresh. The smell of burnt rubber lingers.

Whether or not you realized it at the time -- seat belts do work wonderfully in this regard -- it was exactly four weeks ago today that the Calgary Flames season took a sharp and sudden u-turn.


Instead of driving directly to the airport that morning for the club’s cross-country flight to Toronto to start a two-game Eastern Canada road trip, Glen Gulutzan made an 11th hour change to the itinerary late the night before. Suddenly, the next day's morning departure had become an afternoon departure and the players were re-routed to the Saddledome for an unplanned early practice.

The impetus for the coach? Gulutzan was none too pleased with the ramshackle state of his team’s defensive game and you can understand why.

The previous night, it was a 5-2 home-ice loss to Philadelphia. Entering the game on a 10-game losing skid, the Flyers broke open a 1-1 game with three goals in a 71-second span in the second period.

Forty-eight hours earlier in a much-anticipated match-up with the Edmonton Oilers, the Flames had turned in another dud in front of its home fans. Down 3-1 after the first period and 5-1 after the second, it wasn't until it got to 6-1 in the third that a furious late rally was launched to make the final score a deceivingly respectable 7-5. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

That day, Dec. 5, as the players pulled on their practice sweaters, Calgary sat 25th in the league with 88 goals allowed in 27 games. That was just a stone's throw away from Buffalo (93) in 30th.

Turning Point 

No one knew it at the time, but beginning with that single no-nonsense, attention-to-details practice -- peppy soundtrack provided by Gulutzan's incessant whistling -- the team was about to play its best hockey of the season.

It began the next night at the Air Canada Centre. In a game in which Calgary carried the play all night in outshooting Toronto 48-29, they could only beat Frederik Andersen once. The Flames lost 2-1 in a shootout.

Despite the loss, the vastly improved defensive effort that night was a sterling silver lining.

Beginning that Wednesday night, the team's defence -- so highly touted coming into the season after the off-season acquisition of Travis Hamonic -- has finally started to live up to its advance billing.

The work done to repair the leaks in their d-zone play has been evident throughout the past dozen games, despite a couple missteps along the way.

With red-eye flights and white-knuckle highway trips looming for right after the game, Calgary started its holiday break one night early in an uninspiring 3-2 loss to Montreal on Dec. 22. Then going into the always-tough Honda Center on Friday in the back-end of a difficult post-holiday break back-to-back, they got run out of the building in the first and third periods in a 2-1 loss to Anaheim. But looking beyond those two asterisks, the team has been playing much better.

"These last 12 games, we've played three that were below average, but we've played nine really good ones and we haven't had much to show for it," said Gulutzan on Sunday night, after the Flames rung in the New Year with a 4-3 overtime win over Chicago. "So like the points that the players get (e.g. two-point games for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, both ending slumps), the points that a team gets on a night like this are also big."

Goals Against Way Down

Over this four-week span in which Calgary has only been outshot twice, the Flames have not yielded more than three goals in a game. In nine of the games, they've limited their opponent to one or two goals:
  • 3 GA - 3 times
  • 2 GA - 5 times
  • 1 GA - 4 times

That adds up to a mere 23 goals allowed in 12 games. That's an average of less than two per game, which is close to a goal-and-a-half better than that dreadful stretch to begin the season in which they were averaging closer to 3.3 goals allowed.

Over that time, only the Boston Bruins have been more stingy.

NHL: Team Goals-Against Average Leaders Since Dec. 4
(factors in minutes played)
  1. Boston, 1.64
  2. Calgary, 1.87
  3. Vegas, 2.03
  4. NY Rangers, 2.10
  5. St. Louis, 2.12
  6. Nashville, 2.15
  7. Tampa Bay, 2.15
  8. Philadelphia, 2.24
  9. Washington, 2.28
  10. Anaheim, 2.42

Boasting the league's second-best goals-against average the past four weeks is quite the meteoric rise from when they ranked 25th on Dec. 5. Overall on the season, the 111 goals Calgary has allowed ties them for 12th -- and they're trending up.

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Defence Wins Championships (and Playoff Spots)

History would suggest that if the Flames can continue to limit the goals allowed, they are setting themselves up for success as year after year, the NHL's top teams always tend to be teams that excel in this area.

Exhibit A - Defence > Offence

In each of the last two seasons, 14 of the 15 best teams when it came to fewest goals allowed have made the playoffs. The only two exceptions have been:
  • 2016-17 - Los Angeles (6th in GA, 26th in GF)
  • 2015-16 - New Jersey (8th in GA, 30th in GF)

Interestingly, the cause-and-effect isn't nearly as compelling on the other side of the puck.

Again, looking back on the last two seasons, only 12 of the 15 highest-scoring teams made the playoffs.

The moral of this story is scoring a ton of goals will 'often' get you in the playoffs, but limiting the goals against will 'almost always' get you in the playoffs. So your best bet is focus first on your own end and play a tight defensive game. Do that and unless your offence is really bad -- see the Kings last year or the Devils two years ago -- then you should be just fine.

Exhibit B - Elite Defence 

Further, if you can be an elite team defensively -- think top five in goals allowed in the league -- you have an excellent chance of not just making the playoffs, but also winning your division or at least having home-ice advantage to open the playoffs.

2016-17 - Top Five in GA
  1. Washington, 177 GA, 1st in Metropolitan
  2. Columbus, 193 GA, 3rd in Metropolitan (4th overall)
  3. Anaheim, 197 GA, 1st in Pacific
  4. Montreal, 198 GA, 1st in Atlantic
  5. San Jose, 200 GA, 3rd in Pacific

2015-16 - Top Five in GA
  1. Anaheim, 188 GA, 1st in Pacific
  2. Washington, 191 GA, 1st in Metropolitan
  3. Los Angeles, 192 GA, 2nd in Pacific
  4. St. Louis, 197 GA, 2nd in Central
  5. Tampa Bay, 198 GA, 2nd in Atlantic

It's all further proof that as the expression goes, a great defence should always defeat a great offence.

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About Calgary's Offence

Now let's turn our attention to the attacking zone.

If the Flames can sustain their improved defensive play and by the end of the season, rank in the top-10 or even the top-5 in goals against, what would the offence need to do?

Basically, just don't be awful like the Kings and Devils as noted above.

A league-average offence should suffice when combined with an elite or near-elite defence. You're always striving to be better than that, of course, but in terms of minimum requirements to make the post-season, that should cover it.

While it's true that the Flames offence is operating well below average right now. That's why they only have a 5-4-3 record over this stretch of superb defensive play, there's reasons to believe they'll snap out of this offensive funk soon.

With six of the seven losses being by one goal, it will only take a slight uptick in offensive production to turn losses into wins. Such results aren't as far away as they may seem either.

For one, they've been generating plenty of chances during this 12-game stretch:
  • Shots on Goal (per game) - 6th (33.58)
  • Total Shot Attempts (per game) - 6th (50.17)
  • Missed Shots (per game) - 1st (16.0)

Where no 'puck luck' enters the equation -- combined with a lack of finish -- is the team's misfortune around the opponent's net. Goals are going in lately at an unsustainably low rate:
  • Team Shooting Percentage - 27th (6.95%)
  • Average Goals For (per game) - 26th (2.33)

Over the past four weeks, the team's shooting percentage has been 6.95. Over that same period the league average has been 8.80. That's a significant difference. If Calgary had shot at the league average over the past 12 games, it would have equated to an additional eight goals.

Sure, some of those extra goals may have come on nights in which they won anyway, but considering all the one-goal losses in this stretch, it's not unreasonable to think that they could have three of four more wins over this period had they buried some of their chances.

Think about how much less consternation there would be in the city if Calgary was 9-2-1 in the past dozen games rather than 5-4-3.

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Final Word

While it's easy to be chagrined about the team's plight when, as a fan, you wake up in the morning and don't see Calgary in a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

But the reality is there are still 43 games remaining and they're only two points behind Anaheim for the second wild card spot -- plus they hold a game in hand. It isn't a mountain they have to climb, or even a hill, it's a speed bump.

There is ample time to not just pass teams and ascend into a top-eight spot, but also threaten for one of those coveted top two spots in the Pacific and home-ice advantage.

Aggravated by the power play struggles, home ice woes and personnel decisions, many fans are upset with the team right now and some are also furious with the coach.

But as I see it, it's like when you're driving on sloppy, wintery roads and your windshield is dirty. Other things tend to distract you while limiting your visibility of the road ahead and in this case, the significant fundamental improvements going on such as the team's much better defensive play.

If the No. 1 line can now re-find its form -- or close to it -- from early in the season when they were blistering hot and arguably the league's top trio. If the 3M line can persevere the loss of Michael Frolik. If the Sam Bennett-Mark Jankowski duo with spark plug Garnet Hathaway can continue to generate chances. If Andrew Mangiapane can pick up where he left off in his NHL debut Sunday and eventually factor into one of those three lines, this team has enough horsepower up front.

Combine that with the star power on the back end finally playing up to their abilities and mix in continued fine play in the crease from veteran Mike Smith and rookie David Rittich, Calgary is in good shape.

It's not going to be easy, but for those Western Conference bubble teams currently ahead of the Flames, just a warning that objects in the mirror may not be as far away as they seem.

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 stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


Recent Flames Reading:

  • Living the Dream of a White NHL Christmas: Ex-Farmhands Thriving with Flames - Seven one-on-one interviews went into this deep dive into Calgary's development model and four players that have jumped to the AHL, who are not making an impact. (Dec. 24, 2017)
  • Breaking the Persona: Hathaway Showing That Maybe There's More There- Finding himself right in the middle of all the Flames key goals lately, Garnet Hathaway is showing that maybe he can be an offensive contributor at the NHL level after all. (Dec. 20, 2017)
  • Janko and Benny: After a Three-Year Search, Has Bennett Found His Hockey Soulmate - After three years of searching, has Sam Bennett has found his hockey soulmate in Mark Jankowski, just like Backlund has Frolik and Monahan has Gaudreau. (Dec. 2, 2017)


  1. What a beauty of an article!

  2. As long as Stajan-Brouwer are killing penalties, I don't believe. Their PKing has been so consistently costly all year. Put the old dog out to the proverbial pasture.

    1. As long as they make up 2/3 of the 4th line I don't believe.

  3. I've lately become one of those calling for GG's head. He has his good points, but I strongly suspect the Flames' poor home record can be attributed to GG having last change. They are playing better defensively and if they start generating more high danger chances instead of shooting from the periphery then the SH% will improve even if their CF weakens. There were signs of that in some of their recent games but too often they seem to avoid the hard areas of the ice. I'm not in the room between periods or during practices but they seem to be following a strategy that GG approves of. It keeps them (mostly) healthy but doesn't lead to wins against tough teams. Maybe I'm wrong but from the outside it looks like GG is taking the long view instead of the "win tonight" view. Not a recipe for success; in every walk of life counting the cost leads to failure.

  4. Interesting take. I note that the Vegas coach runs all 4 lines and doesn’t worry about line matching; their record speaks for itself.

    1. When all twelve forwards fore-check and back-check aggressively you can do that. But that implies coaching a system that emphasizes that style of play. Calgary has better players; Vegas has a better coach - and some better puck luck, but arguably playing a better system produces better luck.

    2. We also have a 4th line that can't play. It is time to bring up young guys who can play a fore checking game; instead we get to see more of Stajan, and the slow and painful decline of Jagr. Brouwer is now a 4th liner who is so overpaid it angers this fan.

  5. I agree that our defensive play has improved a large part of that has been that the number of unforced turnovers by or Dmen has gone down and the the play of Rittich as the back up has helped as well. I don't share Darren's optimism about the O returning; Monahan is struggling and far to often of late is not even shooting from prime scoring areas. There is no offense at all from the 4th line; none. They might as well not even dress most nights(heck I think we would be better off if they did not dress). Jagr whether it is old age or his injury is a shadow of himself and I'm not talking about his glory days but his days in Florida. If his groan is that hurt put him on the IR and give a kid a chance.