The Calgary Flames had a regular season to remember in 2018-19. Their performance in the standings was their second-best only behind their Stanley Cup (and Presidents’ Trophy) winning campaign in 1988-89.
Every season has key games that act as forks in the road – where things can either go well or go very, very poorly. There are five dates from the past 82 games that were significant for the Flames’ impressive season.
October 25: 9-1 loss to Penguins
The Flames began 2018-19 looking very much like the team that finished 2017-18 in terms of their playing style. They were an offensively gifted team, but really faced challenges in terms of their inability to defend well. Frequently out-chanced, particularly high-danger chances caused by their own turnovers, the Flames weren’t looking like a sustainable group.
Their worst outing of the season was a 9-1 home ice drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. On a night where their goaltending wasn’t good enough to paper over some tremendous deficiencies in their own end, the loss was followed by a commitment to playing tighter defensive hockey.
They lost the following game to the Washington Capitals in overtime, then rattled off four straight wins and seem to find their confidence.
November 17: 4-2 win over Oilers
Heading into their first Battle of Alberta of the season, the Flames had been playing well but hadn’t had all elements of their game clicking yet. Meanwhile, the Oilers were struggling with consistency but were just two points behind the Flames. The Oilers got out to a 2-0 lead by the early second period, but the Flames roared back with four unanswered goals to decisively win the game. (Of note: Zack Kassian attempted to fight Matthew Tkachuk near the end of the first period and ended up taking a triple minor roughing penalty.)
The back half of this game was the Flames really putting together every part of their game at once: strong goaltending from David Rittich, key defensive plays and some very up-tempo and creative offensive showmanship. Combine that with Tkachuk’s ability to agitate the Oilers’ lineup, this was the Flames figuring out their recipe for high-end success.
December 20: 5-4 shootout loss to Lightning
It’s difficult to paint a mid-season shootout loss as a key game, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were a terrifying presence at that point of the season. The Flames entered the game likely seeing this game as a measuring stick: how would they stack up against hockey’s best team?
What unfolded was the most entertaining 65 minutes of hockey at the Scotiabank Saddledome in years, with the Flames spotting themselves a 3-1 lead before the Lightning roared back in the third period. Johnny Gaudreau scored late to force overtime (and later a shootout).
The Flames were found a little bit taken aback by the ferocity of the Lightning attack late in the game, but they were closer to their opponents in talent and skill level than many likely anticipated.
December 31: 8-5 win over Sharks
The Flames closed out 2018 with their traditional New Year’s Eve game, a wild back-and-forth affair with the San Jose Sharks – who had emerged by that point as the other main challenger for the Pacific Division crown.
The Flames led the entire way but, most importantly, found ways to get goals back as the Sharks went through their push. Perhaps in a lesson learned from their loss to the Lightning, the Flames maintained their composure and didn’t let the Sharks’ size or skill intimidate them.
Considering the small margin of victory for the Flames in the divisional race, this win over the Sharks was huge for the team’s playoff hopes and confidence.
March 10: 6-3 win over Golden Knights
Coming out of the trade deadline, the Flames struggled with puck luck, killer instinct, and their general ability to grab hold of a game and dictate pace. They lose four consecutive games before this game against the Golden Knights. Granted, the Golden Knights started Malcolm Subban instead of Marc-Andre Fleury – Fleury played the night before against the Canucks – but the Flames look full advantage of the situation.
After four games of chasing, the Flames scored early and often. They found their footing again and then managed to keep rattling off wins, eventually clinching the Pacific Division crown at the end of March. It was a strong month, but their victory over the Golden Knights set their template for the month and set them on the right path.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.