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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.

Saturday’s Battle of Alberta was gloriously epic

Associated Press
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Hate.

At times on Saturday night at the Saddledome in Calgary, it seethed.

And it was glorious. Mightily, brilliantly, glorious.

Saturday night was alright for mayhem and the Battle of Alberta had it in droves.

A great game of hockey bookmarked massive hits, fights and hate. Did I mention hate?

The montage above was just first-period highlights.

Let’s recap:

  • The Leon Drasaitl hit on Matthew Tkachuk knocked the latter out of the game for a while
  • Nurse clearly threw another bomb after the linesmen go in between him Sam Bennett
  • Nurse was telling the linesman to let him and not in those exact words
  • Connor McDavid and Mikael Backlund wrestled

The hit that led to Nurse and Bennett scraping is here:

The hate resumed in the second period, because of course it did.

Milan Lucic was engaged in this game, a sight for sore eyes for Oilers fans.

Here’s a sample of that engagement:

Now, if Lucic can bottle that and take some sips before each game going forward…

Oilers Twitter seemed quite pleased with No. 27 during the game.

Calgary prevailed in the game, winning 4-2 after scoring four unanswered as the Oilers squandered a 2-0 lead.

Neither team started their struggling No. 1 netminders. David Rittich for Calgary was the better of the two backups in the game, stopping three breakaways in the game. Edmonton simply couldn’t douse the Flames, who kept it coming in the third frame when the Oilers started to fizzle out.

Bonus: For old times’ sake, here’s the scrap of all scraps in the Battle of Alberta:

John Tortorella would have been proud.

Let the hype begin for the next game in the famed series on Dec. 9 in Edmonton.


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

PHT Power Rankings: Wild still stuck in wrong division

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Before the start of the season I had what was, admittedly, an overly harsh assessment of the Minnesota Wild (No. 5 on the list here) that talked about how they just kind of exist as a franchise, and how I don’t really have any overwhelmingly strong opinions, positively or negatively, about them as a team. Mostly because for as good as they tend to be, they just never really go anywhere.

Every year you know exactly what they will do, where they will finish in the standings, when they will exit the playoffs.

They have a lot of really good players, but they don’t really have any true superstars.

They are a consistently good team (sometimes really good!), but no matter how good they are, there always seems to be that one team they inevitably meet in the first round that is just always a little bit better than them.

The result is a team that consistently finishes with 100 points, is usually in the top-10 in the overall league standings (top-eight the past two years; top-three this season as of Monday), but can never make a serious postseason run. You know they are going to be there in the playoffs and probably near the top of the standings, but deep down you just know they have no legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup. At least that is the way it seems.

Look at it this way: During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Wild were 10th in the NHL in games won. That is a pretty good team. You would think with that much regular season success, and that many trips to the playoffs (all five years), that something might have come together for at least one decent run deep in the playoffs.

For most teams, it does.

For most teams, it did.

For the Wild, it didn’t.

They were one of just two teams in the top-12 in total wins during that stretch that did not make at least one Conference Finals appearance (the Boston Bruins, sixth in wins during that stretch, were the other).

Eight of the teams in the top-12 made at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance (St. Louis, Boston, Anaheim, and Minnesota were the ones that did not).

This season, the Wild are once again a good team. A really good team. A really good team with a great coach in Bruce Boudreau that is doing what he has done for every team he has coached — win. They dominate five-on-five goal-scoring. They dominate five-on-five scoring chances. They have a great penalty kill and an outstanding goalie.

If you are a Wild fan there should be every reason to look at this team and think “maybe we have a chance!”

For everyone outside of Minnesota, you can’t help but look at the situation and the division and the potential path through the playoffs and simply say, “there is no way they are beating both Nashville and Winnipeg in the first two rounds. It just doesn’t seem probable.”

This is the story of the Minnesota Wild in a nutshell. In any given year there may only be two or three teams in their conference that are better than them, and those teams will almost always — always! — be in their division, and be their likely first-or second-round opponents.

The same is true this season.

For years that team was always the Chicago Blackhawks during their mini-dynasty run.

This year — just like last year — it is Nashville and Winnipeg. The two teams they will almost certainly have to go through to go on a run and get out of the Central Division bracket.

It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to win a Stanley Cup. That luck can be anything and everything from getting the right bounce in the right moment, to having all of your key players healthy at the same time, to getting the right matchups along the way.

When it comes to the Wild, they almost never seem to get the latter. Every year it is a brutally tough draw in their division. That does not seem to be changing.

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — Just an incredibly deep team that is dominating everybody. They have only allowed seven goals on their current five-game winning streak. In four of those games they allowed either one goal or zero goals.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Ryan McDonagh seems to have found the fountain of youth in Tampa Bay, and as if they weren’t already good enough, Victor Hedman is now back in the lineup. The Atlantic Division should be theirs for the taking once again.

3. Minnesota Wild — Once again stuck in the wrong division.

They are who we thought they were 

4. Boston Bruins — Jaroslav Halak has been a huge surprise this season. What has not been a surprise has been the domination of their top line. It is almost like a cheat code when they are on the ice. I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but splitting that trio up should be a fireable offense.

5. Winnipeg Jets — After recording a pair of points in their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, Blake Wheeler is now on a 10-game point streak. He has 19 points during that streak.

[Related: It is time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated]

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are still picking up wins even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but their loss over the weekend to Boston should concern them from a big picture outlook. They still have no answer for the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line and if the Maple Leafs are going to be anything other than a team that loses in the first-round they are probably going to have to get through Boston this season. Are you convinced they can do that?

Exceeding expectations, but the jury should still be out

7. Vancouver Canucks — This team still strikes me as a house of cards (that defense and goaltending … woof!), but Elias Petterson is a legit top-line talent and one of the league’s must-see players right now. I give them credit for winning early, because that matters, but I am still not ready to buy this team, this season. Yet.

8. Montreal Canadiens — Just about everything Marc Bergevin touched this offseason seems to be turning to gold. At least for now. How long that good fortune lasts will determine the success or failure of this year’s team.

9. Buffalo Sabres — Whether it is from Buffalo or somebody else, Jeff Skinner is putting himself in a position to collect a lot of money at some point over the next few months. He is still only 26 years old and it seems like he has been around forever.

They are who we thought they were, part 2

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — They enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division despite the fact their goalies, for the most part, have completely stunk this season. They need Sergei Bobrovsky to be Sergei Bobrovsky again.

11. Philadelphia Flyers — How does anyone that follows this team have a healthy blood pressure? They either look great or horrible and they seem to spend equal time on both sides of that spectrum. Lately, the great version has been here (at least offensively). Give it time, though, because the horrible version is probably lurking around the corner just waiting to appear again.

12. Dallas Stars — Middle of the pack seems to be the perfect way to describe the Stars. In any year and every year. Losing John Klingberg for a month is going to hurt, though. He is one of the game’s best blue-liners and should be in the Norris discussion once again.

13. Calgary Flames — The Flames are off to a pretty good start and one of the biggest contributors has been … David Rittich? The backup goalie is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage in six starts. Now if they could just get something out of James Neal

Hey, wake up, you are better than this

14. San Jose Sharks — Erik Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers would indicate, but zero goals in 18 games to start the season is not what anybody expected.

15. Washington Capitals — The defending Stanley Cup champions have won back-to-back games once this season. They have yet to win more than two in a row. They have also yet to lose more than two in a row.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins — The general manager was right to call out his team. But he also is the one that built the team, so he has to look in the mirror a little bit, too.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

17. St. Louis Blues — Three of their top-five scorers right now (Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak) were acquired over the offseason in an effort to boost one of the league’s worst offensive teams. They fixed the offense just in time for the goaltending to abandon them.

Making their move … but is it already too late?

18. Florida Panthers — Entering the week they are 5-2-0 in their past seven games, but another slow start to the season may have been enough to bury them.

19. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their eighth game of the 2017-18 season until December 22, so they are more than a month ahead of last year’s pace. There is a lot to like about this team, especially the way they play defensively and on the penalty kill. They are not an easy two points for anyone.

20. New York Rangers — Honestly, not sure I expected this team to put together a six-game point streak at any time this season, but that is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks as part of a 5-0-1 run. Only two of those five wins came in regulation (the other three were shootout wins) so it’s probably not something that is going to sustain itself, but you can’t fault the effort.

21. Detroit Red Wings –– Same story as the Rangers. The effort is there, and it’s resulted in a nice little hot streak here recently (for the Red Wings, it is wins in six out of the past seven games, including three in a row where they have had to overcome a two-goal deficit) but even bad teams get hot at some point during an 82-game season.

The mystery teams

22. Colorado Avalanche — Two of the top-three scorers in the league, a top-three offense overall, top-10 in goals against per game … and they are, at the moment, a fringe playoff team that has lost six out of eight games.

23. New York Islanders — The argument in favor of the Islanders is that they are balanced, and getting contributions from everyone, and they are the definition of a team with a good system and a good coach in place. The reality is they are 21st in the league in goals per game, 30th in shots on goal per game, and are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to possession and scoring chance differential. Unsustainable goaltending has masked all of those flaws for now.

24. Vegas Golden Knights — I still think this team is capable of putting together a run here if they get their goalies straightened out. But maybe they’re just not going to get the goaltending this season? Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t young anymore and the jury is still out Malcolm Subban.

25. Carolina Hurricanes — Such a promising start, too.

26. Edmonton Oilers — No forward depth. Bad defense. Cam Talbot is not playing well in goal. Everyone in charge of this team should remain on the hot seat.

27. Ottawa Senators — Young players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have been great this season. That is the important thing for this team.

28. New Jersey Devils — After starting the season with a four-game winning streak the Devils are just 2-8-1 since then.

[Related: Struggling Devils]

29. Anaheim Ducks — Their strong start was always a mirage given the way they were actually playing. They have just one regulation win in their past 11 games. This has all the makings of another team destined for an in-season coaching change.

You probably fired the wrong person

30. Chicago Blackhawks — Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster is not particularly good.

31. Los Angeles Kings —  Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster stinks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Pastrnak dominates, Couturier breaks out, Senators rally

AP
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Three Stars

1. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. The Boston Bruins’ top trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak dominated once again on Saturday night in a 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. That trio was on the ice for four of the Bruins’ five goals, with Pastrnak having a hand in all four of them, scoring three for his second hat trick of the season. The four-point night is already Pastrnak’s third of the season, more than any other player in the league. Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars and Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche are the only other players with two.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers. After a breakout season offensively in 2017-18, Sean Couturier got off to a bit of a slow start for the Philadelphia Flyers. He has been starting to get back on track over the past couple of games and had a huge breakout performance on Saturday afternoon in a 4-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks where he recorded three points (two goals, an assist) and was a plus-four. He is now up to 11 points in 16 games this season, with eight of those points coming in the past six games. The Flyers are 5-0-1 in those games, having earned 11 out of a possible 12 points.

3. Matt Duchene, Ottawa Senators. Matt Duchene and the Ottawa Senators have been in the news quite a bit lately, but it is probably not the kind of attention they want. They should get some of that attention on Saturday night after rallying with four consecutive third period goals against one of the best teams in the league to pick up a 6-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Duchene had a huge night for Ottawa by recording three points, including a pair of assists in the third period. One of those assists set up Ryan Dzingel‘s game-winning goal.

The Hurricanes lost in the most Hurricanes way possible

Carolina is on a record-setting pace this season in terms of their ability to register shots on goal. This is not always leading to victories. Take Saturday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings as an example. Even though they recorded 52 shots on goal (and only allowed 32) they were still unable to come away with a win, losing in a shootout by a 4-3 margin after allowing a 3-1 third period lead to slip away. This game was already Carolina’s 10th game this season with at least 40 shots on goal. No other team in the NHL has more than five. During the entire 2017-18 season there were 14 teams that did not record 40 shots on goal in a game for the entire season. The Hurricanes have dominated the shot chart for several years now but keep getting the same mediocre results in the standings.

Highlights of the Night

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered Saturday’s game against Arizona riding a five-game losing streak and trying to avoid their first six-game losing streak in 12 years. They were able to accomplish that with a 4-0 win over the Coyotes. The first goal of the game belonged to captain Sidney Crosby as he scored on another absolutely ridiculous backhand shot. There might not be a better backhand shot anywhere in the league.

The Buffalo Sabres rallied for a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday afternoon, erasing what had been a 3-1 third period deficit. That makes this first period glove save by Carter Hutton to rob Bo Horvat of what looked like a sure goal that much more important. This is one of 36 saves Hutton made during the game.

Factoids

Remember when the Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber? Of course you do. Since that trade P.K. Subban has recorded 111 points with the Predators, including his assist on Saturday’s game-winning goal against the Dallas Stars. That point total is more than the number of games that Weber has played in for Montreal. Safe to say, that trade has worked out spectacularly for the Predators (stick-tap to @JJFromKansas for that statistic).

Mike Hoffman helped the Florida Panthers beat the New York Islanders on Saturday night, and in the process extended his current point streak to 11 games. That is the second-longest streak in Panthers history behind only Pavel Bure.

The Detroit Red Wings picked up another come-from-behind win.

The Calgary Flames were 1-0 winners over the Los Angeles Kings thanks in large part to a 22-save shutout from David Rittich, the first shutout of his career.

 

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (SO)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Chicago Blackhawks 0

Nashville Predators 5, Dallas Stars 4 (OT)

Boston Bruins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

Florida Panthers 4, New York Islanders 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Arizona Coyotes 0

Ottawa Senators 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 4

Montreal Canadiens 5, Vegas Golden Knights 4

New York Rangers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 4 (SO)

Detroit Red Wings 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3 (SO)

Calgary Flames 1, Los Angeles Kings 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flames goalies: Blessed by Salt Bae?

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Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith recently delivered what Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson believes was the quote of the season so far, regarding some solid early play from fellow Flames netminder David Rittich:

“Whatever Salt Bae sprinkled on him in New York, I want a little bit of that too,” Smith said.

If you’re a registered old like me, you had two reactions: “Heh” and “Huh?”

Well, to start, here’s the photo Smith was referencing:

OK, that helps, but *ahem* some of us might not be too familiar with Salt Bae. You know, not your humble author, but … others. Is this person salty? For the bae part seems easy enough to follow.

Welp, Salt Bae is apparently this wonderfully smooth proprietor of steakhouse chain Nusr-et, who gained viral fame (thus eluding certain olds) with this video:

Why, that is quite impressive. As someone who’s had friends in the restaurant industry who’ve suffered ghastly wounds while preparing food (still not sure how your finger didn’t fall off, Michael), that display can be filed under “easier said than done.”

It brings up a question: which player best exemplifies the tenants of “Salt Bae?” My vote is Mathew Barzal: he cuts through defensemen as if he was wielding a steak knife, and he does so with undeniable grace and swagger. He also plays in Brooklyn, which helps the comparison since Salt Bae’s rooted in New York.

Maybe Barzal is the best NHL equivalent for Salt Bae, yet goalies seem most fascinated by him.

Rittich recently sprinkled some of that mystery spice after a recent win, for example:

(If Michel Therrien coached the Flames, Rittich wouldn’t get away with that fun celebration for long, right?)

Rittich can’t call first dibs on being NHL goalie-as-Bae, though, as Roberto Luongo perfectly executed this Halloween costume last year:

Bravo.

This does bring up some burning questions. Why hasn’t Henrik Lundqvist gotten involved? Is he merely trying to avoid a clash between Salt Bae and Swede Bae?

Regardless, make sure to make as many bad cooking jokes as you can, whether Calgary’s goalies are performing at high levels or churning out the netminding equivalent to turning meat into what looks like hockey pucks.

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.