James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Seven-game surge allows Flames to dream bigger than wild card

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When the Calgary Flames fell to 24-24-3 with a loss on Jan. 24, it was reasonable to wonder if they’d even make the playoffs. Things have changed quite a bit since then, to the point where they might even enjoy a round of home-ice advantage.

The Flames have blazed a 12-2-1 path since falling to “.500,” but they’ve been especially hot lately, managing a seven-game winning streak on the strength of Sunday’s 5-2 win against the New York Islanders. They’re also 8-0-1 during a nine-game point streak.

While they remain in a modest spot as the West’s top wild card team, it’s at least conceivable that they could eventually pass the Ducks for third in the Pacific or even the Oilers for second in the division.

Pacific standings (updated at end of Sunday)

1. Sharks – 83 points in 64 games (lost to Wild)
2. Oilers – 78 points in 65 games
3. Ducks – 76 points in 65 games (lost to Canucks)

Flames – 76 points in 66 games

Don’t blame them for dusting off a creaky meme or two, as it’s been a while since they’ve enjoyed a run like this.

As discussed earlier on Sunday, tonight’s win came at the expense of Thomas Greiss and the Islanders.

Video review, lots of goalie discussion expected for NHL GMs’ meeting

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When a collision knocked off Mike Smith‘s mask, the Arizona Coyotes goaltender was less than pleased upon being told a few minutes later he had to leave the game.

One of the NHL’s central spotters in New York made that call to trainer Jason Serbus, and in accordance with the league’s concussion protocol, Smith’s departure was mandatory.

“Mike didn’t want to come out, but that’s what was going to be done,” coach Dave Tippett said. “I’m interested to see how that one goes in an overtime in playoffs or something like that. We’ll see how teams react to that one.”

The playoffs are still a month away, and teams already are not reacting well to concussion protocol for goalies, which is why it’s one of the topics that general managers are expected to discuss at their annual March meeting beginning Monday in Boca Raton, Florida. Smith and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist are among those who have been critical of the rule.

Other issues as GMs try to refine rules they’ve put in place in recent years include the offside rule, coaches’ challenges, goalie equipment and goalie emergencies.

Video review is among the hottest topics, especially the time it takes. Major League Baseball recently instituted timing guidelines for umpires, and that could soon happen for hockey officials.

“That’s probably maybe the No. 1 discussion,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said via phone Sunday. “Other than getting the call right, it is the time frame. It’s something we can’t go seven, 10, 12 minutes to get it right. … It is something where I think the call has to be done within a certain time frame to keep the game going.”

GMs also will discuss some controversial coach’s challenges where a player’s skate is off the ice and the play is ruled offside. It came up during a playoff series last year between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues and has been a subject of discussion at previous meetings.

Updates to the league’s concussion protocol will be under the microscope after Smith and Lundqvist blasted the system as flawed. Connor McDavid and other skaters have expressed concerns that the rules could have a major impact come playoff time – and goalies are at the center of the debate.

“If there is an instance that takes place where you think there is a possible concussion, I think we need to look after that,” Nill said. “When you do that, there’s a risk of a player coming in cold. I guess the answer to that for me sometimes, it’s no different than if a goalie hurts his knee, he’s coming out and the other guy’s coming in cold.”

Goalie equipment and emergencies – where teams have to sign players to tryout contracts to back up for a game – are also on the agenda. After missing the past two meetings, George McPhee will attend as GM of the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time; owner Bill Foley’s final expansion payment went through last week.

GMs said criteria for the June 21 expansion draft have been made clear, so there’s no need for further clarification. Blind-side hits, which were discussed at the November meeting, and playoff formats aren’t on the official agenda but may be brought up over the course of the three-day meeting.

Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings has suggested expanding the playoffs to nine or 10 teams in each conference with play-in games similar to MLB, and the strength of the Metropolitan Division this season – where the fourth-place team has more points than the Atlantic Division leader – has generated some questions.

“I don’t know that they want to keep changing it, but this has got to be an impetus for at least a discussion when something happens like this where there’s so many good teams in the one division,” said Brian MacLellan of the league-leading Washington Capitals, who acknowledged it would be self-serving to propose a change.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/SWhyno .

Flames throttle Islanders in first period, chasing Greiss

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That “Anchorman” quote gets trotted out too easily these days, but Thomas Greiss and the New York Islanders could have gotten away with a “that escalated quickly” on Sunday.

(Or would it be the Calgary Flames that would say that? If so, Sean Monahan was wielding the trident.)

Despite a busy first period, things were 0-0 with a little bit more than five minutes remaining in the opening frame … and then it all fell apart. The Flames scored four goals in that short period of time, prompting the Islanders to bench Greiss to begin the second.

You can watch all four of those goals in the video above this post’s headline. In Greiss’ defense, the Flames fired 21 shots on goal in that first period, the sort of output you sometimes see from a full game (granted, a really boring game, but it’s fairly common).

Both teams are in tough playoff positioning races, so we’ll see if the Islanders can muster up a fight in this one.

Greiss had company on Sunday, as Matt Murray only made it through the first period against the Buffalo Sabres.

Hat trick Kane: Blackhawks get best of Penguins in fun one

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The Pittsburgh Penguins were no slouches on Wednesday, yet the Chicago Blackhawks keep heating up and different players keep rising to the occasion. In tonight’s case, that translated to a 4-1 win in a game that was closer than the score would indicate.

It was also a heck of a ride.

Patrick Kane grabs the biggest headlines with a hat trick in this one, giving him seven goals – including two hat tricks – in his past three games.

He wasn’t the only forward who had a great game, though. Richard Panik bamboozled Evgeni Malkin for a true goal of the year candidate. Nick Schmaltz played a big role in Kane’s hat trick, collecting two impressive assists before No. 88 got an empty-netter.

(Schmaltz is someone teams might need to gameplan for, by the way. He’s now on a five-game point streak with two goals and seven assists.)

Finally, Scott Darling played a huge role in this game not being a nail-biter. He stopped 36 of 37 Penguins shots to spoil the “Marc-Andre Fleury is still here” party.

Sidney Crosby made a ton of great plays, but Darling was game for all of them, only allowing a fantastic Scott Wilson tally. About the only bad news for Chicago was that Artem Anisimov suffered an injury.

The Penguins lose their tiebreaker advantage for the second spot in the Metro after this loss. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks at least give themselves a shot at catching the Minnesota Wild for the Central title.

Whatever the case may be, the Blackhawks are making a serious statement that they’re a legitimate contender in the West, rather than just “hanging on.”

In other words, while the odds might still be against it, you can get away with at least daydreaming about Wednesday being a Stanley Cup Final preview. If such a series happened … let’s hope tonight served as an appetizer for that scenario.

Naturally, there’s a long way to go for that to happen, but both teams looked fantastic tonight.

Comic relief: Fan offers official glasses during review (Video)

It turns out Ondrej Palat missing a wide-open net might not be the funniest moment from Wednesday’s eventual 4-3 overtime win for the Lightning over the Hurricanes.

(Although comedy is subjective.)

During a goal review, a fan offered officials glasses in a moment that will probably tickle many a person who’s booed a call. Or anyone who just enjoys a lighthearted bit of trolling.

Someone shared a screen grab of the … charitable moment.

If you want a little more substance for clicking, enjoy this absurd bit of magic from Jonathan Drouin as a bonus:

Drouin can make you look as silly as handing a ref your glasses.