The Calgary Flames are coming off their worst month of the 2020-21 season, and the slide could not have come at a less opportune time. The boys in red went 6-8-1 in March and missed a great chance to catch the idle Montreal Canadiens, who had 10 days off because of COVID-19 protocols. While the Habs were idle, Calgary could only manage to secure two of a possible 10 points, remaining four points back of the final playoff spot. While the team is still spinning its wheels in 5th place, it could have been much worse if it wasn’t for the commendable efforts of the 3 Stars of the Month.
Third Star: Noah Hanifin
The young blueliner has been receiving accolades all season long for his stalwart defensive play alongside newcomer Chris Tanev, so it’s really no surprise that Hanifin is once again one of the standout players on the Flames roster for the month of March. Hanifin and Tanev rank first and second respectively in 5-on-5 ice time, and they’ve also played the lion’s share of the tougher matchups this season. However, it was his offensive numbers that piqued my interest and secured his spot as the third star.
Hanifin led all Flames’ defencemen this past month with three goals and five assists in 15 games, which was also good enough for 4th place in overall team scoring. Heading into March, the Boston native only had three assists through the season’s first 22 games, so this surge in offense is certainly overdue. Despite only being 24-years-old, Hanifin is already playing in this sixth NHL campaign and he has definitely taken his game to another level this season, showing no signs of plateauing.
“I think I’m just getting more comfortable. It’s been a fast six years and I’ve learned a lot over those past six years, and having a guy like Taney (Tanev) come in just to play with him he’s made my life a lot easier and he’s allowed me to take another step and be more reliable in certain situations”Noah Hanifin on March 15, after scoring his third goal in five games.
Second Star: Elias Lindholm
It seems we never really hear all that much about Lindholm, and that’s probably a good thing during a rollercoaster season that has seen incredible highs and increasingly lower lows. Despite all of the turbulence, the steady Swede has quietly emerged as the Flames’ most consistent and versatile two-way player – seeing time at center, the wing and special teams. During the month of March, he also replaced Johnny Gaudreau at the top of the team’s scoring race after leading the squad with three goals and nine assists for 12 points in 15 games.
With 31 points in 37 contests, Lindholm has continued to produce offense this year despite skating with a rotating cast of characters. The Flames’ coaching staff has deliberately juggled the forward lines in the hope of breaking out of a season-long scoring slump that has the team barely above the lowly Ottawa Senators in total GF (goals for). The perennially underrated forward may not be potting goals at the same rate as past seasons, but the 26-year-old remains one of Calgary’s most productive 5-on-5 players despite the added defensive responsibility that comes with facing the toughest matchups.
First Star: Chris Tanev
I get the feeling people are getting tired of hearing about how effective Chris Tanev has been for the Flames this season, but I don’t care – I’ll keep pumping his tires as long as the former Canuck keeps playing like this. While you may not see his name on the scoresheet very often, the advanced stats (courtesy of Natural Stat Trick) tell a pretty compelling story. The 31-year-old’s 1.58 xGA/60 at 5-on-5 ranks 2nd among defensemen league-wide and Tanev leads all blueliners in even-strength defensive goals above replacement. To put it simply, the team’s big backend offseason signing has produced the best shut-down defenceman in the NHL.
Tanev’s excellent defensive play has him averaging almost four minutes more ice time under new coach Darryl Sutter than he did under Geoff Ward. The gap-toothed defender usually finds himself at the top of the total ice time stat line after every game and after Saturday’s much-needed win over the Winnipeg Jets, Sutter was full of praise for the rugged D-man who was on the ice for a team-high 24:31 on Friday and 23:55 the very next night.
“He plays such a fundamentally sound game within the structure of what we’re trying to do; he’s comfortable playing against those top guys like that…Put it this way, with Chris you can count on him all the time. It doesn’t matter what type of game it is.”Darryl Sutter on Chris Tanev
The Flames Will Need More Than Three Stars Next Month
Despite the best efforts of these three standout players, the Flames find themselves in an extremely tough spot. According to The Athletic’s Dom Luszcyszyn, the Flames have an 8% chance at making the postseason. With only 19 games remaining in the regular season, they will need to go 15-4 to reach the projected cutoff of 65 points – that’s a .789 winning percentage for a team currently running at .472.
Now let’s look at their closest rival in the race to secure 4th place in the Scotia North Division, the Canadiens. The Habs only need 26 points to hit 65, with 24 games left in their season. All they need to do is go 13-11 – that’s a .541 winning percentage for a team currently running at .609. Without a miracle run by the Flames or an epic collapse by Montreal, Calgary can say bye-bye to qualifying for the 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Because I’m already on record stating the Flames’ postseason hopes have already been dashed, I must add that the fat lady is currently doing her vocal exercises and is ready to take the stage.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube, Facebook and all podcast outlets.