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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.

The Buzzer: Kucherov, DeBrincat each hit fivers; Thornton turns back the clock

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Three stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

I mean, what is there to say about Kucherov that hasn’t already been said?

Kucherov was in fine form again on Monday, scoring twice and adding three assists in a five-point effort that left him one-point shy of 100 on the season. He’s played 60 games now.

The point totals are insane. He seems to be a lock for the Art Ross, and likely the Hart, too. The only real question is what that final total will be in 22 games’ time? With assists like these…

2. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

DeBrincat match Kucherov’s five-point total with a hat trick and two assists in a wild 8-7 win for the Blackhawks against the Ottawa Senators.

In just his second year in the NHL, DeBrincat has 32 goals and 60 points in 60 games this season, surpassing his 28-goal, 52-point totals from his rookie season a year ago.

He has six goals and 12 points in his past six games now.

The Blackhawks are now just one point back of a playoff spot.

3. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

Semyon Varlamov had a shutout, but 39-year-old Thornton grabbed his first hat trick since 2010 so he gets here by default.

It was Oct. 27, 2010, against the New Jersey Devils, precisely, when Thornton last bludged the twine three times. There was no beard then, no gray hairs either. Just Jumbo Joe, only eight years younger.

Thornton turned back the clock in Monday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Bruins. It won’t be as sweet, especially after how the Sharks ended up losing, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Highlights of the night

Hands of Kucherov:

McAvoy’s winner:

Factoids

Scores

Flames 5, Coyotes 2
Lightning 5, Blue Jackets 1
Blackhawks 8, Senators 7
Avalanche 3, Golden Knights 0
Bruins 6, Sharks 5 (OT)
Capitals 3, Kings 2


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

Bruins win after forcing overtime on controversial third-period goal

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Add the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks to Stanley Cup Final matchups that would be epic.

This game was great and ridiculous in so many ways.

The Bruins led 4-2 at one point, trailed 5-4 in the third after going over 20 minutes without a shot on goal, tied the game on a goal that shouldn’t have counted and then won 6-5 in overtime to rub it all in the faces of the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday.

Pete DeBoer coached his 800th game on Monday and it appeared he was headed for a nice win to cap it off. But he quickly turned incensed with 1:49 left in the third period when the Bruins tied the game 5-5.

The goal was a clear high stick from Chris Wagner but the referees chose not to review the play, effectively sending the game to overtime.

The goal flustered the Sharks.

In overtime, Evander Kane was heading for a clear cut breakaway when the net behind Tuukka Rask was found to be off its moorings. The play was halted, further frustrating San Jose (even though replays show it was Kane who dislodged it earlier in his shift).

And then Charlie McAvoy drove home the final dagger with 1:01 left on the OT clock.

The ending was so crazy that we haven’t even gotten to Joe Thornton and his hat trick.

Yes, one of the NHL’s elder statesmen potted his first treble since Oct. 27, 2010, when his beard was merely stubble and all one color.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Nope. Even at 39, Thornton continues to be a special player.

The Bruins rolled in SAP Center in San Jose riding a five-game winning streak and a 10-game point streak and looked like they were heading, easily at first, to a season-long sixth straight win.

They led 3-0 in the first period (and it could have been four if not for this save by Marc-Edouard Vlasic — which may have not actually been a save at all) before Thornton clawed one back with three seconds remaining in the frame.

Jumbo Joe’s first sparked the Sharks out of the intermission and Joe Pavelski reduced the deficit to one with his 32nd on the power play. The Bruins answered four minutes later through Jake DeBrusk. With a 4-2 lead, the Bruins’ sticks fell silent.

For the next 20-plus minutes, it was San Jose who dictated the play and all of the shots.

By the time the Bruins had their first shot on goal in the third period, the game was tied. A few moments later, Thornton tallied his hat trick and the Sharks led 5-4.

The Sharks dropped just their second game in their past nine, but the loss keeps them one point back of the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific Division.

The Bruins, meanwhile, tighten their grip on second place in the Atlantic Divison. They now lead the Toronto Maple Leafs by three points, although Toronto has two games in hand.


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

Blackhawks, Senators combine for 15 goals in thriller

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Fifteen total goals.

Four goalies used.

Twenty-three skaters with at least a point.

No, this wasn’t the aftermath of a seven-game series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, it was a Monday night sizzler between the Chicago Blackhawks and visiting Ottawa Senators — a wild and wacky affair that, when the dust settled, saw the Blackhawks emerge with an 8-7 victory.

The game had five goals combined within the first 7:55 of the opening period. By the time the 17:46 mark came, there were nine goals scored, and there was 12 lamps lighted just after the halfway point of the game.

Here’s a quick summary:

1st period:

  • OTT – Ryan – 2:06
  • OTT – Balcers – 2:40
  • CHI – DeBrincat – 3:54
  • CHI – DeBrincat  – 5:07
  • OTT – White – 7:55
  • CHI – Kane – 12:36
  • CHI – Strome – 13:22
  • CHI – Saad – 14:53
  • OTT – Stone – 17:46

2nd period

  • OTT – White – 1:32
  • CHI – DeBrincat – 8:19
  • CHI – Forsling – 10:31

3rd period

  • CHI – Toews – 3:51
  • OTT – Chabot – 9:01
  • OTT – Chabot – 14:43

And here’s the full breakdown from the NHL game sheet.

Alex DeBrincat‘s night ended with a hat trick and five points while Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane each had three-point efforts for the Blackhawks.

Colin White had a three-point night for the Senators while Thomas Chabot scored twice as Ottawa nearly came back in the third.

Collin Delia lasted just 7:55 after allowing three goals on 10 shots. Cam Ward replaced him, allowing four on 28 for Chicago.

Anders Nilsson didn’t fare much better, lasting 13:22 after giving up four goals on 12 shots. Craig Anderson came off the bench and allowed four on 30 shots in relief.

Chicago shot at a 19 percent success rate, edging out Ottawa’s 18.4 shooting percentage in the game.

The puck dropped in the game at 7:38 CT and the final horn didn’t sound until 10:11.


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

Sharks’ Vlasic makes wild goal-line save

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The difference between a goal and a save can come down to mere millimeters sometimes.

This one, however, came down to a razor’s edge.

The Boston Bruins came within less than of scoring a goal in the first period of their game against the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday when Charlie McAvoy‘s point shot flirted with the edge of the goal line at the 7:32 mark.

The puck appeared to teeter on the goal line before Marc-Edouard Vlasic swatted out of the net. You be the judge on the above video evidence. It’s so incredibly close.

To the referee’s credit, he immediately waved no goal, a testament to his hawkish eyesight. He was right. Video review determined that the puck, somehow, did not cross the line.

The game continued until the 10:13 mark before the play was reviewed.

The call didn’t seem to faze the Bruins, who scored three straight and led 3-1 after the first period.


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