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: Brown, Kopitar dominate for Kings

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Three Stars

1. Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings. It has been a tough year for the Los Angeles Kings but they were at least able to give their home fans something to be happy about on Sunday night. Their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers featured a turn-back-the-clock performance from their two top players, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, as the Kings were able to win at home for the first time since Nov. 6 (they had lost five consecutive home games). This is the type of game they used to get from Kopitar and Brown when the Kings were dominating the Western Conference and competing for the Stanley Cup every year. Brown was the big star of the night on Sunday as he recorded a hat trick in the win, snapping what had been an eight-game goal drought. He is now up to six goals and 10 total points this season.

2. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. He is not only the Lightning’s latest draft steal, he is currently one of the hottest players in the NHL and helped the Lightning roll to a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday with another mutli-point game. With 31 points in 24 games so far this season he is now the NHL’s fifth-leading scorer. Along with Nikita Kucherov (currently in fourth place with 32 points) the Lightning now have two of the top-five point producers in the league.

3. Noah Hanifin, Calgary Flames. The Flames’ special teams made a huge impact in their big win over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday, scoring three shorthanded goals and a power play goal. Defenseman Noah Hanifin played a big role in all of that by scoring the first of their shorthanded goals to give them a 2-0 lead in the first period, and then adding to that lead with the power play marker midway through the second period. Those two goals were his first two of the season and his first as a member of the Flames since going to Calgary in the big Dougie Hamilton trade over the summer.

Highlights of the Night

Dustin Brown was not the only Kings star to have a big game on Sunday night. Anze Kopitar also recorded three points in the win, including the game-winning goal in the third period. Here it is.

As for the other side of that game, here is Connor McDavid doing what he does on a nightly basis for the Edmonton Oilers. It did not result in a goal, but it is still worth watching. When he gets the puck on his stick and is going at top speed there is nobody in the NHL that can match him. Nobody.

Factoids

The Arizona Coyotes have made a habit out of scoring shorthanded goals this season. On Sunday, they got a taste of their own medicine against the Calgary Flames.

The Predators and Lightning have spent a lot of time at the top of the NHL standings recently.

More factoids from Sunday’s NHL action…

— Kings rookie forward Matt Luff extended his goal-scoring streak to four games with an empty net goal in their win over the Oilers.

— Flames coach Bill Peters needed some stitches after getting hit in the face by a puck during their game.

Austin Watson recorded his first career hat trick for the Nashville Predators in their 5-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

 

— Not long after their game against Calgary, the Arizona Coyotes made yet another trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, sending forwards Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago in exchange for forward Nick Schmaltz.

Scores

Calgary Flames 6, Arizona Coyotes 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 5, New Jersey Devils 2

Nashville Predators 5, Anaheim Ducks 2

Los Angeles Kings 5, Edmonton Oilers 2

 

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 coach Bill Peters needs stitches after taking puck to face

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins visit Flames on NBCSN

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The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Calgary Flames hosting the Boston Bruins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Two hot teams face off to wrap up tonight’s NBCSN games, as the Bruins carry a four-game winning streak into Calgary (facing a Flames squad that’s won three of four).

This contest shouldn’t be short on star power, as these squads pit two of the best top lines in the NHL against each other, while each team also has some nice complimentary pieces. If that wasn’t enough, Brad Marchand and Matthew Tkachuk are almost certain to ruffle feathers with their obnoxious, antagonistic ways.

The Flames and Bruins don’t meet all that often, so it should be a treat to watch these two interesting teams on Wednesday.

What: Boston Bruins at Calgary Flames
Where: Scotiabank Saddledome
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Flames stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Projected Lineups

Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand — Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Joakim NordstromDavid KrejciJake DeBrusk

Ryan DonatoDavid BackesAnders Bjork

Chris WagnerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

John MooreBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask

[WATCH LIVE – 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Calgary Flames

Johnny GaudreauSean MonahanElias Lindholm

Matthew Tkachuk — Mikael BacklundMichael Frolik

Sam BennettMark JankowskiJames Neal

Garnet HathawayDerek RyanAustin Czarnik

Mark GiordanoTJ Brodie

Noah Hanifin — Rasmus Andersson

Juuso ValimakiMichael Stone

Starting goalie: Mike Smith

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.