Will streaky Calgary stay hot or flame out in playoffs?

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The Calgary Flames know they’re in the playoffs. Now comes the hard part.

Despite being idle on Sunday, the Flames became the first Western Conference team to clinch a postseason berth due to the New York Islanders’ win over the Minnesota Wild. But the Flames know better than most teams that nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, Calgary has won just one postseason series. A Canadian team has not won the Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. The Flames won their only championship 30 years ago. Will this finally be the year that the C of Red celebrates into the summer?

Even the Flames would have to admit they’ve been inconsistent over the last month. After winning seven straight games from February 16 to 27, Calgary dropped their next four in regulation, followed by another three-game winning streak with a jaw dropping 20 total goals during that three-game stretch. Obviously, no team can afford a prolonged lull in the playoffs.

Calgary’s chances to make a run deep into spring begin between the pipes, as both David Rittich and Mike Smith have been up and down this year. While Rittich is enjoying a career season (his third in the NHL) with 25 wins, he owns just a .910 save percentage, which ranks tied for 24th in the NHL among qualified goaltenders (21 or more games played). The veteran Smith has just an .896 save percentage on the year and has dropped three consecutive starts in March. While he once brought the Phoenix Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012, Smith has not been back to the postseason since. The Flames boast the fourth best offense in the NHL this season (3.56 goals per game), but when scoring inevitably dries up in the playoffs, a reliable netminder is vital in the march toward the Cup.

Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm is one of the best trios in the league. Gaudreau is a Hart Trophy candidate this season with a career-best 91 points, Monahan has already secured his third career 30-goal season and Lindholm has been a rousing success story in Calgary, blowing past any of his previous five seasons with Carolina. It’s also easy to forget just how good Monahan was the last time the Flames were in the playoffs. Though Calgary was quickly swept in four games by the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, Monahan scored a power play goal in all four games. He is one of eight players in League history to tally a power play goal in four consecutive postseason games.

Aside from the top line, Calgary does have depth with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (73 points), Norris Trophy-hopeful Mark Giordano (67 points) and Mikael Backlund (44 points). They could also get a boost if James Neal returns to form. Neal is getting closer to returning from a lower body injury that has kept him out over a month. The 31-year-old signed a 5-year, $28.75 million deal this off-season, but has been a disappointment with just 15 points in 55 games. Still, Neal has shown the ability to be a big-time player throughout his career and has loads of experience, having played in the postseason each of the last eight years.

Several other statistics from this season bode well for the Flames entering the playoffs. They have a whopping plus-49 goal differential in the third period and lead the NHL with 105 goals in the third period. They are also 21-14-2 on the road and need just two road wins to set a single-season franchise record.

Despite their success away from Alberta, clinching home ice advantage would be huge for Calgary’s chances. There is little doubt that the Scotiabank Saddledome will be rocking come playoff time, but even more importantly, winning the Pacific Division would ensure that the Flames avoid playing the reigning Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights in the First Round. Giordano, however, took the diplomatic approach, saying the opponent won’t matter.

“Well…the team that gets in as the wildcard is going to be playing really well and playing really hard,” Giordano told the Calgary Sun. “I’ve never been a fan of trying to pick and choose who you want to playoffs because the league’s so tight. The team that’s usually in the wildcard is feeling good and playing well. And if you want to go all the way, you’re going to have to go through a lot of great teams.”

To this point, Calgary has proven to be great in the regular season. But they’ll need to find more consistency to end their – and Canada’s – Stanley Cup drought.

PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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, Sharks meet as battle for Pacific heats up

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks offers plenty of intrigue. They are the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and they are also the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference. And after their most recent meeting on December 31 – an 8-5 Flames win – the scoreboard might not be the only place we see fireworks this evening.

In the final 41 seconds of that game, the two teams combined for 66 penalty minutes, including a match penalty for Sam Bennett after he concussed Sharks defenseman Radim Simek with a questionable hit. There was no supplemental discipline for the play, which the Sharks called “gutless” and “predatory” afterwards, so one wonders whether there will be any retribution sought by the Sharks on Bennett.

Close watch should also be kept on Evander Kane and Matthew Tkachuk, who each picked up 10-minute misconducts in a brawl just prior to the Bennett hit. There are fewer Kanes and Tkachuks in today’s NHL – both in terms of their style on the ice and their unfiltered remarks off the ice – which makes the build up to this game even more interesting. However, neither would fully take the bait when asked about things carrying over from December:

“I know what you’re asking, I know what you’re trying to get me to say. We’ll see,” Kane said via The Mercury News. “It’s something that, hopefully, everybody in this room remembers because it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a skill guy, a big guy, a tough guy or a small guy, it’s on each and every person in this room to stick up for one another. We’ll see.”

Said Tkachuk: “I’m don’t think I’m going to be the guy who’s going to give you what you want on that quote. Those games are fun to play in. I love those games. Our whole team’s thriving in those games this year. We have guys that can play that style, too. (Kane) is a good player. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a great game.”

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was much more definitive in downplaying the revenge factor, telling reporters yesterday, “We know where everybody is in the standings, so that’s first and foremost. This isn’t about settling scores. This is about trying to close the gap on these guys in the division. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. It’s going to be physical. That stuff takes care of itself.”

He is right about the importance of this game in the standings. Since that New Year’s Eve meeting, the Flames have not lost to a Western Conference opponent, and they now have an opportunity to create a six-point cushion over the Sharks. Considering these teams play only once more during the regular season – and not until March 31 – this may be San Jose’s best opportunity to chip away at that deficit.

It would be an even bigger boost for the Sharks considering they will be without Erik Karlsson (lower body) for a sixth straight game, however he could return on the team’s current road trip. It should be noted that in the middle of this absence, Karlsson did participate in the NHL All-Star Game.

Regardless of the outcome tonight though, it is safe to say these are two of the most complete teams in the conference. Bill Peters is a Jack Adams candidate in his first year behind the bench for the Flames, and fellow former Hurricane Elias Lindholm has joined with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to form one of the most potent lines in hockey. The Sharks are dangerous up and down their lineup, with a pair of Norris Trophy caliber defensemen, as well as five different forwards with 19+ goals – the most such players in the league.

San Jose and Calgary have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2008, but if they keep up their play from the first four months of the season, this could wind up being a high-scoring, hard-hitting, and headline-grabbing second round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

The Buzzer: Rask’s milestone; former ‘Canes lift Flames over Carolina

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Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. When you move to the No. 1 spot on an Original Six team’s all-time wins list with a shutout over the defending Stanley Cup champions you get the No. 1 star for the day. Read more about Tuukka Rask and the Bruins’ big day here.

2. Elias Lindholm, Noan Hanifin and Derek Ryan, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames continued to build on their incredible climb to the top of the Western Conference standings with a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday. It was a trio of former Hurricanes that were leading the way as Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, and Noah Hanifin all scored goals in the win. Lindholm and Hanifin were traded to Calgary over the summer in the big Dougie Hamilton trade (Hamilton, for what it is worth, also scored against his former team on Sunday for the Hurricanes) and have played a big role in the Flames’ resurgence. Lindholm has had a career year and been one of the single biggest individual surprises in the league. All three of them get to share a star for their role in the win. Lindholm gets a special star for, well, taking a page out of the Hurricanes’ celebration book.

It is great when the Hurricanes do it, and this is great, too. The NHL needs more personality from its players. More celebrations!

3. Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens. He completed the Canadiens’ come-from-behind win with an outstanding end-to-end rush in overtime to score his 15th goal of the season. The Canadiens trailed by a goal heading into the third period and sent the game to overtime on a late tally from rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, setting the stage for Drouin’s goal. It is a big goal for Drouin not only because it helped the Canadiens win, but because they could use more production of him this season. Entering play on Sunday he had scored just three goals in his past 19 games but has started to show some signs of snapping out of it with five points, including a pair of goals, in his past eight games. The Canadiens are now 6-1-1 during that stretch following Sunday’s win.

Highlights of the Day

It did not result in a win, but the Carolina Hurricanes opened up the scoring on Sunday with a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing play that was completed by Teuvo Teravainen.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, their Storm Surge celebrations may not be embraced by people like Brian Burke but they are definitely having an impact on the young hockey players in the city.

Some of Rask’s biggest saves on his big day for the Bruins.

Here is Jonathan Drouin’s overtime winner.

Factoids

  • Garnet Hathaway scored the Calgary Flames’ 16th shorthanded goal of the season on Sunday afternoon. That total leads the league, is the fourth most in franchise history, and is just seven away from tying the team record for a season. They have a real shot at matching it at this paceP. [NHL PR]
  • Shea Weber‘s goal for the Montreal Canadies on Sunday was the 197th of his career, moving him into a tie with Mark Howe for 22nd on the NHL’s all-time list for goals scored among defenders. [NHL PR]
  • Elias Lindholm’s goal extended his current point streak to 10 consecutive games. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 1, Washington Capitals 0

Calgary Flames 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Montreal Canadiens 4, Edmonton Oilers 3 (OT)

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.

Trade deadline buyers should beware of Ferland

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Despite plenty of their fans wanting to keep the bruising pending free agent, the Carolina Hurricanes are likely to trade Micheal Ferland, according to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.

LeBrun places a potential price tag for a Ferland trade as a first-round pick and a prospect.

On paper, that’s a totally sensible move for a contender to make, with LeBrun adding the Pittsburgh Penguins to the list of potential suitors.

For one thing, Ferland is super-cheap in 2018-19. The 26-year-old only carries a $1.75 million cap hit, so a contending team could easily make Ferland merely part of a shopping spree, at least from the perspective of being under the $79.5M upper limit.

Depending upon the quality of the prospect, that potential trade is pretty reasonable for a solid rental. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal season from 2017-18, and with 13 goals in just 40 games, is on an even better pace (.33 per game) in 2018-19. Just as enticingly, Ferland is the sort of rugged presence that teams believe they need for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Considering some of the prices in previous years – the Predators giving up their first rounder for Ryan Hartman, the bucket of picks Vegas sent for Tomas Tatar – Ferland could be a nice find.

But this is a “buyer beware” situation, at least depending upon the potential plans of a would-be buyer.

Tom Wilson money”

Yes, Ferland is dirt-cheap today, but a team would be wise not to sign Ferland to an extension before seeing him play.

For one thing, there’s a Tom Wilson comparison that might inflate his market value. During a recent edition of Hockey Night in Canada, Nick Kypreos reported that Ferland is looking for Wilson-type money for his next deal. That would mean a six-year contract in the $31M range, or at least something coming in around a $5.167M cap hit.

There’s no denying that Wilson is having a career season, even with that hefty suspension in mind. His 13 goals puts him one behind last season’s career-high of 14 in 78 games, even though Wilson’s only played in 29 this year. Even so, Wilson’s on a five-game pointless drought, and his 20.6 shooting percentage indicates that he’ll be cooling down a bit more.

So, the market’s already inflated for a physical winger who can score. There’s also slight concern over Ferland’s scoring.

Nature vs. nurture

One thing certainly helping Wilson rise up the scoring ranks is his linemates, as he’s been regularly skating with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom.

That alignment makes great sense for the Capitals for a number of reasons, including the fact that they already paid Wilson, anyway.

But a would-be buyer should be cautious about extending Ferland for the simple reason that he’s basically had nothing but outstanding linemates during the past two seasons, when he’s generated far and away his best numbers.

Last season, he was glued to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, a pairing that’s boosted Elias Lindholm to easily the best work of his career. As you can see from Natural Stat Trick, he’s frequently lining up on Carolina’s best line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, too.

Now, it says a lot about Ferland that he can hang with such high-level forwards. Plenty of other players have squandered opportunities with players like Gaudreau and Aho.

Still, if a team is investing in Ferland beyond 2018-19, it’s fair to wonder how Ferland would handle being the top guy on a lesser line, or otherwise show that he’s worth that Wilson-type money.

After all, it’s not as though Ferland’s lighting opponents on fire. Generating 25 points in 40 games this season, and 21 goals (and 41 points) in 2017-18 is promising, and fantastic value at $1.75M per season.

Would he really be worth something in the $5M range?

That question might only really matter when the free agent frenzy kicks in during July, but there’s no guarantee that a trade partner wouldn’t also be eager to keep Ferland around longer term.

***

There are risks involved even in giving up that first-round pick and prospect, but it’s easy to see why someone would want to at least rent Ferland. A longer lease option could be quite costly, though, so potential teams should really be careful here.

Considering how things have gone for the likes of James Neal, Patrick Maroon, and Milan Lucic, sometimes it’s dangerous to invest in power forwards, even when they’re well-marketed like Ferland seems to be.

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.