Big changes have led to big results for Flames

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After they made the playoffs in 2016-17, the Calgary Flames were expected to take a step forward last season. Their failure do so led them to a coaching change and a blockbuster trade with Carolina. So far, those two things have worked out in a big way.

As of right now, the Flames find themselves in second over in the NHL standings, with 60 points. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (70 points) are ahead of them. New head coach Bill Peters has found a way to get all of his team’s parts firing at the same time.

Although Calgary finds themselves in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals against, they’ve found a way to put the puck in the back of the net with regularity through 45 games. Their 162 goals for are third in the league behind Tampa and San Jose.

When we think of the best lines in hockey, we often think of the top lines in Colorado, Tampa or even Washington, but it’s time to start showing some love to Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Gaudreau (66 points in 45 games) is third in league scoring, Monahan (54 points in 45 games) is 11th, and Lindholm (51 points in 45 games) is 16th. Lindholm, who was one of the two players acquired from the ‘Canes over the summer, has already surpassed his career high in points. He’s been an excellent fit with those two players. Oh, and by the way, Matthew Tkachuk is 17th in league scoring with 51 points in 45 games.

As PostMedia’s Wes Gilberston pointed out earlier this week, the Flames are the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to have four players hit the 50-point mark at this stage of the season. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Tomas Sandstrom accomplished that for the Pens.

Another reason the Flames have been so hard to stop this year, is because of their depth on defense. First, 35-year-old Mark Giordano is having the best year of his career. He’s put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation by picking up 43 points in 43 games. T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and the other piece of the trade with Carolina, Noah Hanifin, round out the top four. That’s an impressive group of defenders for one team to possess.

So, adding Peters behind the bench and acquiring Lindholm and Hanifin from Carolina have been excellent moves. Johnny Gaudreau taking his game to another level is also a huge reason why the Flames are where they are today. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t vulnerable.

The biggest question mark they have can be found between the pipes. Mike Smith, who comes with a cap hit of $4.25M, hasn’t been the answer. The 36-year-old has a 12-9-1 record with a 3.09 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage this season. He just hasn’t been good enough.

So the team decided to turn to David Rittich, who’s been a significant upgrade on Smith. The 26-year-old hasn’t lost a game in regulation since mid-December. He owns a 16-4-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage. The numbers look good, but how will he respond when the real pressure begins? We simply don’t know. Can he take his game to another level in the postseason when goals typically tend to drop a little bit? We don’t know.

If he can keep playing this way, the Flames will have a legitimate shot of winning it all. If he doesn’t, they could find themselves bowing out of the playoffs fairly early.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Kings’ bizarre handling of Kovalchuk situation

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

•  Ilya Kovalchuk is one year into a three-year, $18 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings and things are not going well between him and the organization at the moment. Right now the Kings’ handling of the situation just seems bizarre. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Ottawa Senators are looking to add a director of hockey operations for what owner Eugene Melnyk calls, “another voice.” (Ottawa Citizen)

•  The NHL’s current playoff format is definitely controversial because of some of the early round matchups it creates that eliminate some of the best teams in the league earlier than they otherwise would be. (TSN)

• Like Connor McDavid a year ago, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is having an MVP caliber season, but one with an asterisk. Mainly because his team is not very good and will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (The Hockey News)

• This year’s Philadelphia Flyers team has been an analytics nightmare. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Patrik Laine had a chance to snap out of his goal-scoring drought but decided to set up a teammate instead, an unselfish act that was a smooth move. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• There are some signs of health for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ injured defense. (Sportsnet)

•  The Boston Bruins have been crushed by injuries for most of the 2018-19 season but they are starting to get some reinforcements back. (Bruins Daily)

• ACHA looks to lose “club hockey” label at Texas tournament. (NHL.com)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Campbell steals Tkachuk – Doughty show; Four for Tavares

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares

For the first time in his NHL career, Tavares scored four goals in one game. His four tallies were a mix of luck and skill, with all of them coming from very close in on net.

You can rank Tavares with the likes of Sidney Crosby as a star who tends to score a lot of his goals like grinders: in the dirty areas of the ice, cashing in on rebounds and quick reactions. None of this is to say that Tavares lacks skill, just that he sometimes applies those skills in subtler, more grinding ways.

This post goes into great detail on his great night in specific, and his fantastic first season with Toronto in general.

2. Jack Campbell

There were plenty of bitter moments involving Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk, sometimes sniping and swiping each other, sometimes with just one of those players involved. But this was the closest they got to a fight, which is kind of a bummer:

Instead, Campbell basically stole the show, pitching a 42-save shutout to help the Kings upset the Flames.

This is the second shutout of Campbell’s career, and it’s increasingly looking like the former (mostly disappointing) first-rounder might just find his niche as a backup goalie. Nice story developing here, even if it’s in relative anonymity considering the low quality of this Kings team.

3. Steven Stamkos

Tavares was the free agent who left for Toronto after Steven Stamkos didn’t, so there’s a fun symmetry to the two high-scoring number 91’s generating four points during the same night.

In the case of Stamkos, he got to those four points with two goals and two assists. Stamkos is now tied for fourth in the NHL with Patrick Kane with 41 goals on the season, leaving him four behind Tavares. Stamkos has the edge in total points, however, as his 93 ranks seventh overall.

Highlights of the Night

Mark Scheifele is known for being a “student of the game,” so maybe he’s studied the best ways to sweep would-be goals out of his own net? Does he moonlight as a goalie?

Starting with a great save by Andrei Vasilevskiy, this is a fun watch (unless you’re a Bruins fan), as Nikita Kucherov tied things up for the Lightning. They eventually stunned the B’s in regulation, reminding the hockey world that they’re way, way ahead of everyone else.

Factoids

  • Four players have scored at least 30+ goals in three seasons before reaching age 21: Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Dale Hawerchuk, and now Patrik Laine.
  • As tough as this season has been, and as embarrassing as that center-ice goal was, Cory Schneider had a fantastic overall game on Monday. You can make an argument that stopping 45 out of 46 saves ranks as three stars material. Schneider became the second goalie in Devils franchise history to earn multiple wins of at least 45 saves. Glenn “Chico” Resch was the other goalie to do it.
  • This post details the Predators clinching a playoff spot for the fifth season in a row, and perhaps most importantly, Devan Dubnyk, 32, having the same throat guard since he was 17.
  • The Flames hadn’t been shut out at home since March 21, 2018.
  • The Sharks lost in regulation to the Red Wings, which marks San Jose’s sixth consecutive loss. Cause for concern? Cause to gently nudge Erik Karlsson to get back in the lineup?

Scores

TOR 7 – FLA 5
NJD 3 – BUF 1
PIT 5 – NYR 2
TBL 5 – BOS 4
STL 3 – VGK 1
NSH 1 – MIN 0
DAL 5 – WPG 2
LAK 3 – CGY 0
DET 3 – SJS 2

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.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

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.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.