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Are Flames finally ready to contend?

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During the last few seasons, the Calgary Flames have been one of the most frustrating and bewildering teams in the NHL.

Just look at the treasure trove of talent in Calgary. Johnny Gaudreau powers what’s perennially one of the best top lines in the league. Matthew Tkachuk and “The 3M Line” basically don’t allow opponents to touch the puck. Oh, and they also employ Mark Giordano, who’s a Norris defenseman without the trophy.

Considering all of those strengths, it’s been mind-boggling to see the Flames not only fall short of being an elite team, but miss the playoffs in two of the last four seasons, managing a single playoff series win during that span.

Along the way, they’ve surely teased us with moments of brilliance. With that in mind, maybe this post will be filed under “Fool Me Once …”

Yet … it does kind of feel like the Flames might be turning the corner.

Calgary won its fourth consecutive game in Thursday’s game against the Wild (which devolved into violence at the end), pushing their record to 18-9-2. That gives them 38 points in 29 games, which amounts to a pretty comfortable lead in the Pacific Division. Even more impressively, the Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.

This isn’t just a matter of beating up on the lesser lights in what’s admittedly a weak division. Calgary’s only a point behind the Predators and Avalanche (each with 39 points in 29 games) for the best record in the West.

At minimum, they’re in a strong position to at least land a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Could they make an even bigger leap and become legitimate championship contenders? What’s been going so well during this 8-1-1 run? Let’s dig in.

Strong team numbers

Early on in 2018-19, the Flames must have given Bill Peters bad memories from his Hurricanes days, as Calgary was generating strong puck possession numbers but couldn’t get over dicey puck luck and wobbly goaltending from Mike Smith.

Overall, that seems to be leveling out now (their PDO is almost exactly at 1, which would indicate that the bounces are more or less “even”), and they remain a strong puckhogging group, via Natural Stat Trick and other site’s numbers.

To little surprise, they’ve been a high-end possession team during the last 10 games, as you can see at Puck on Net.

Granted, certain things are likely to sink, and a red-hot power play stands among them. During that 8-1-1 run, the Flames have connected on 31.6-percent of their chances, the fourth-highest rate in the NHL since Nov. 17. In their 19 previous games, the Flames were middle-of-the-pack at 18.5 percent, so that’s one obvious area where things could sink.

Overall, though, there are enough promising underlying numbers to suggest that the Flames have the making of a strong team.

Of course, we might as well consider their frequent Achilles Heel.

Role reversals in net

For most of this season, Mike Smith’s been struggling (10-7-1 record, .892 save percentage), while David Rittich saved the day (8-2-1, .919).

Things have been inverted during this 8-1-1 run, though. In six games, Smith’s 5-0-0 with a .939 save percentage; meanwhile, Rittich’s save percentage was .899 in five appearances.

In the grand scheme of things, this could be a fine development for the Flames. Yes, Rittich struggled, but still managed a 3-1-1 record thanks to some goal support. There must be increased organizational trust in the 26-year-old going forward.

But Smith gaining confidence is crucial. The big 36-year-old can get as hot as just about any goalie, so it’s promising to see him trending upward.

Are there caveats? Sure. Smith hasn’t always had the greatest injury luck throughout his career, and goalies his age usually don’t become sturdier with time. It’s nice that Rittich shows some promise, yet if Smith goes down, the Flames might still need to eye the trade market.

This still ranks as a promising stretch for a goaltending position that’s … let’s just say, vulnerable for the Flames.

Usual suspects, but with a supporting cast

You likely don’t need to ask who’s leading the way for the Flames when it comes to scoring.

With a whopping 18 points in 10 games (including eight in his last three), Johnny Gaudreau tops all Calgary scorers since Nov. 17. In fact, Gaudreau ties Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for second-most points over that period of time, trailing only Nikita Kucherov‘s 22 points.

Gaudreau lighting up the scoreboard is really nothing new, as he now has 37 points in 29 games.

The difference is that the Flames are enjoying nice contributions from others. Sean Monahan (14 points) and Elias Lindholm (13) aren’t surprising as his linemates, and Matthew Tkachuk is going from “a handful” to a flat-out star, including getting 11 points in 10 games. Impressively Giordano rounds out the players with at least 11 points during this run.

It’s almost as promising to see some of the other names down the playbill.

Noah Hanifin‘s settling in, collecting eight points in 10 games. They’ve received six points from Derek Ryan. Sam Bennett‘s even offered five.

Some of those players will naturally cool off, but if the Flames can heat them up in decent intervals, they could be scary. Now if only they could get James Neal going …

***

As of early December, it looks like GM Brad Treliving’s “riverboat gambler” mindset has been paying off.

If Treliving wants to add that extra piece via a trade, he’d likely need to be creative. Cap Friendly places Calgary’s cap space at less than $900K, although their estimated deadline space would be about $4.08M.

That provides moderate wiggling room, yet they’re unlikely to make the sort of splash that, say, the Maple Leafs could consider.

Instead, if they clinch a playoff spot, they’re probably going in with largely the same group that Treliving put together entering 2018-19. If they can play anywhere near this recent level, the Flames may finally go from frustrating for their fans to frightening for opponents.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

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Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers visit Oilers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Oilers have missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, but this year has started successfully under new GM Ken Holland and new head coach Dave Tippett. Edmonton won their first five games of the season before losing on Monday in Chicago, 3-1. Still, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl carrying the load as usual, boosted by a torrid scoring pace from James Neal, the Oilers have shown promise early on.

The Oilers’ two superstars both have four goals and eight assists and are tied for the league lead with 12 points. They are tied with Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, who have played two more games.

During the Oilers season-opening five-game winning streak, they became the first team in NHL history to win their first five games despite trailing at some point in each of those games.

Tonight, Carter Hart will play his first NHL game in his hometown; Hart was born in Sherwood Park, Alberta, which is just east of Edmonton. Hart did play the Oilers last season, but only in Philly; he was called up to the NHL three days after the Flyers played at Edmonton.

Hart’s mother Shauna will be in attendance, but his father John is in Regina on business and will not be at the game. In addition to Shauna, Hart’s longtime sports psychologist John Stevenson (who also works with Braden Holtby) will be there – the first time Stevenson will see Hart play an NHL game in person.

Prior to the game in Calgary yesterday, the Flyers signed Chris Stewart to a one-year contract after he joined the team on a PTO in the offseason. Stewart had three hits in 9:12 of ice time – his first NHL game since March of 2018.

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-OILERS BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude GirouxKevin Hayes – James van Riemsdsyk
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Tyler PitlickScott LaughtonJakub Voracek
Chris Stewart – Michael Raffl – Carsen Twarnyski

Ivan ProvorovJustin Braun
Travis SanheimMatt Niskanen
Robert HaggShayne Gostisbehere

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

OILERS
Leon Draisaitl – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Alex ChiassonRyan Nugent-Hopkins – James Neal
Jujhar KhairaRiley Sheahan – Patrick Russell
Tomas Jurco – Markus GranlundJosh Archibald

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Oscar KlefbomJoel Persson
Kris RussellMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

MORE: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.