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.

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: Phil thrills with four-point night; Smith wins fifth straight with shutout

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins

Kessel’s name was all over this game. He assisted on the first of two goals by Kris Letang, scored twice himself in the second period to give the Penguins a comfortable 5-1 lead and then grabbed his fourth point of the night on Sidney Crosby‘s 15th of the season in the third period.

With the Penguins reportedly “testing the market” when it comes to Phil the Thrill, performances like this one only raise the price. More importantly, it gives the Penguins less and less of a reason to trade him. He simply makes the team betters, as PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote on Thursday.

2. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames

Talk about a resurgence. Smith has won five straight starts now after dropping six of his previous.

His latest victory comes in the form of a 31-save shutout in a 2-0 win against the Minnesota Wild. Smith is slowly starting to repair a horrible start to the season. He entered the game with a .884 save percentage and left with a .892, which just goes to show that he still has a ways to go if he wants to own some respectable numbers by seasons’ end.

Still, a five-game heater is nothing to scoff at and it’s helped the Flames open up a three-point lead atop the Pacific Division.

3. Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets

Jones’ overtime winner was the fastest in Blue Jackets history after he potted it 10 seconds into the extra frame for his second of the game.

In doing so, he also helped John Tortorella become the first coach in a long time to win a game behind the bench while wearing a tracksuit.

But back to Jones… his first goal extended his point streak to five games with three goals and four assists in that span.

Other notable performances:

  • Brayden Point continues to light the lamp, scoring his 21st of the season to tie Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for the NHL’s top scorer.
  • Elias Lindholm scored both goals for the Flames in their win. He’s on a five-game point streak and has at least a goal in his past three games.
  • Gustav Nyquist had a goal and two assists to help the Red Wings to a 5-4 OT win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. His second assist sprung Dylan Larkin in on a breakaway to win it in the extra frame.
  • Travis Sanheim‘s first two goals of the season weren’t enough for the Philadelphia Flyers, who lost to Jones and the Blue Jackets in OT.
  • Paul Byron scored twice in a 5-2 win for the Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators.
  • Alex Ovechkin‘s goal helped the Capitals secure a 4-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes and put him into a tie with Laine and Point on 21 goals.
  • Reilly a three-point effort (a goal and two helpers) as the Golden Knights came from behind in the third period to win 4-3 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Highlights of the night

Crosby doesn’t care about your tight angles:

This kid is far too good:

Larkin’s OT winner highlight by this head fake:

Factoids

Scores

Red Wings 5, Maple Leafs 4 (OT)

Avalanche 5, Panthers 2

Blue Jackets 4, Flyers 3 (OT)

Penguins 6, Islanders 2

Canadiens 5, Senators 2

Lightning 3, Bruins 2

Capitals 4, Coyotes 2

Flames 2, Wild 0

Canucks 5, Predators 3

Golden Knights 4, Blackhawks 3

Devils 6, Kings 3


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

Flames’ Lomberg ejected for jumping Wild’s Dumba after questionable hit

Sportsnet
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(UPDATE: Lomberg has been automatically suspended for one game and Flames head coach Bill Peters has been fined $10,000, per the NHL Department of Player Safety, as per rule 46.22, Instigating in the Final Five Minutes of Regulation. He’ll also have a hearing today for “a legal line change for the purpose of starting an altercation.” That could end up being a fine or multi-game ban. In other discipline news from the gameMark Giordano will have a hearing today for kneeing Mikko Koivu.)

A wild finished between the Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild saw a massive (questionable?) hit, an ejection and a seven-minute power play on Thursday.

A heated contest came to a head with under a minute left in the third period with the Flames holding a 2-0 lead.

Wild defenseman Matt Dumba stepped up in the Flames zone and delivered a hit to Mikael Backlund. There are a couple of angles to watch. One of them shows Dumba jumping into the hit and the other shows his shoulder hitting Backlund square in the face.

Here’s the tape:

Backlund was forced out of the game and could be out for a while, according to Sportsnet’s John Shannon.

Appears he was in concussion protocol, as well.

The Flames didn’t take too kindly to the hit and Ryan Lomberg came off the bench on a line change and made a b-line right to Dumba, jumping him and getting one punch in before the refs piled on top of the two.

Lomberg got two minutes for instigating, five minutes for fighting and a game misconduct for his efforts. The power play for Minnesota didn’t amount to anything as Mike Smith stood tall for the 31-save shutout.

Dumba was not penalized on the play.


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

Flames coach Bill Peters needs stitches after taking puck to face

Calgary Flames
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It was a painful win for Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters on Sunday afternoon.

He had to miss a portion of his team’s 6-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes while he was back in the locker room area getting stitched up after being struck in the face by a puck.

“I think it’s going to hurt more tomorrow,” said Peters afterward. “It’s one of those things where there’s not a lot of room out there and you’ve got to be paying attention. So you just move on.”

You can see his entire post-game media availability here — along with his stitches — via the Flames.

This is the play where Peters was hit.

 

As for the game itself, this was a huge win for the Flames as they completely steamrolled the Coyotes to win for the fourth time in their past five games.

It was a total team effort as they scored three shorthanded goals, a power play goal, and received a strong performance from Mike Smith in net as he stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced. His shutout bid came to an end midway through the third period when Coyotes forward Clayton Keller scored his team’s only goal on the day.

Noah Hanifin and Mark Jankowski each scored a pair of goals for the Flames.

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.