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.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

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.

Chris Kunitz ejected after elbow to head

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It sure feels like there’s been a lot of game misconducts for dastardly things this weekend.

The latest comes on Sunday night after Chicago Blackhawks forward Chris Kunitz got his elbow up into the face of Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic in the second period.

Here’s the tape:

Kunitz was assessed a five-minute major for elbowing and a game misconduct.

Hamonic was bloodied on the play and had to leave the game to get fixed up. He was able to return later in the period.

The ordeal proved costly for the Blackhawks, who surrendered two goals on the ensuing penalty.

Other ejections this weekend include:


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

Pacific Division continues to get hammered by injuries

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It would appear that injuries are pilling up on Pacific Division teams to start the season, and it’s a who’s who when it comes to names.

The latest is a lower-body injury for Los Angeles Kings starting goalie Jonathan Quick, who is listed as day-to-day with the ailment.

The injury reportedly happened at practice, and backup Jack Campbell has already been named the starter for Los Angeles’ game on Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings.
Campbell has proven to be a capable replacement, going 2-0-2 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in four starts last season.

The Kings are already without Dustin Brown, who sustained a broken finger in the preseason and needed surgery to repair it.

Bonus for Peter Budaj fans, he’s back in the NHL.

The injury bug has taken a chunk out of the San Jose Sharks, too, after Joe Thornton was placed on injured reserve on Sunday after flying home from the team’s Eastern Conference road trip.

Jumbo Joe, 39, is dealing with swelling in his right knee, which was surgically repaired after he tore his ACL and MCL last season. Thornton has had catastrophic injuries to both of his knees now in the past two years. Despite his age, he’s been averaging around 16 minutes a night with the talent-laden Sharks this season.

The Anaheim Ducks received more bad news on Sunday after it was revealed that Ryan Getzlaf is day-to-day lower-body injury after leaving Saturday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. Getzlaf joins a growing list of walking wounded in Anaheim, with Corey Perry, Patrick Eaves, Ryan Kesler and Ondrej Kase all sidelined.

Despite what seems like some big holes in the Ducks’ lineup, Anaheim is 2-0 to start the season. John Gibson grabbed his first shutout of the campaign in a 1-0 win Saturday.

The Coyotes have been woeful to start the season, having yet to register a goal in their first two games.

Injuries have played a role in that, too, of course.

Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun are all stuck in the infirmary for the Coyotes.

The Calgary Flames are without Travis Hamonic after a fight resulted in a facial fracture for the defenseman, who is now week-to-week as he recovers.

Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch remain sidelined in Vegas.

Really, the only team to come through relatively unscathed here is Vancouver.

It’s been a tough opening week on the west coast.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Fight proves costly for Flames’ Travis Hamonic

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Dillon Dube didn’t see Erik Gudbranson coming, which resulted in the Calgary Flames rookie getting drilled by the Vancouver Canucks defenseman during Wednesday night’s opener. That led to a scrum, which later led to Travis Hamonic sticking up for his teammate later in the game.

The kid was certainly appreciative of Hamonic.

“It shows how big of a leader (Hamonic) is,” Dube said afterward. “I can’t thank him enough for what he did. When you do that for a teammate, it means a lot. That’s the presence he has. I was even nervous to go talk to him, because I didn’t know if he’d be mad at me for having to go fight. He was really happy about it. He was proud. I can’t say enough about that leadership.

“That really makes me feel welcome in the room when somebody will go and do that for me.”

The good news is that Dube was fine. Now the bad news.

As you see, Hamonic took an upper-cut that ended the fight. He would go get checked out and return to play the remainder of the game sporting protection around his mouth. The defenseman didn’t participate in Thursday’s practice and the Flames announced that he suffered a facial fracture and is considered “week-to-week.”

Rasmus Andersson has been recalled from AHL Stockton.

This will put a hold on the developing chemistry between Hamonic and Noah Hanifin and impact the team’s No. 1 penalty kill unit. It almost might reignite — in some corners — the fighting debate, and in an instance like this, with a clean, hard hit, was Hamonic’s defense of the rookie a smart move now considering the injury?

The decision certainly had an impact inside the Flames’ locker room given the comments of Dube and others. That culture still exists in hockey, and while fighting overall may be exiting the game slowly, instances like this won’t go away anytime soon.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.