With the calendar officially turning over to 2017, we’ve nearly reached the halfway mark of the NHL schedule, and the Calgary Flames are ringing in the new year holding down a playoff spot. How many pundits would have predicted this in September, or after the team won just five of their first 16 games?
Recap of Flames' December to remember:
9-4-0 record – 4th
34.7% PP (17-for-49) – 1st
88.5% PK (46-for 52) – 3rd
+10 goal differential – 5th
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) January 1, 2017
While the Flames can be pleased with their season so far, especially following a December that saw the team go 9-4-0 to put themselves firmly back in the playoff picture, there are still a lot of games left to be played and a lot of question marks surrounding the team moving forward. Looking ahead to January, this will be a big month for Calgary to try and keep their heads above water in a tight playoff race, establish whether they might be trade deadline buyers or sellers (or neither) and ideally find some more consistency with their goaltending situation.
Following a hot start to the season that saw Brian Elliott lose his starting role to the red-hot Chad Johnson, the script has flipped a bit over the past three weeks. Johnson has lost each of his past four starts, posting an .862 save percentage, and allowed four goals in three of those starts. Meanwhile, Ellliott has won each of his past four, allowing more than two goals just once (in a 6-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche) and posting a .918 save percentage.
The catch here comes when you look at the opponents each goalie has faced in their past four starts. Johnson’s losses came against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. Meanwhile, Elliott picked up his wins against the Vancouver Canucks, Colorado Avalanche and twice against the Arizona Coyotes. On top of that, Elliott was guilty of letting a couple of softies squeak past him.
It’s been some time since the Flames had a legitimate, steady and reliable number one goaltender. Elliott was brought in to be that, and after a slow start, the team has to be happy to see him finding some success again. Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan has been running a meritocracy with his goaltenders and it would now be nice to see if Elliott can continue his run against some stiffer competition.
With the Flames’ next four games coming against the Avalanche, back-to-back against the Canucks and a visit to Winnipeg to play the Jets, they’ll have to wait until next Wednesday when the Sharks come to town before potentially seeing Elliott tested by a top flight team again.
Looking Over Their Shoulder
While the Flames are sure to have their sights set on getting back into the race for the Pacific Division and hunting down the Edmonton Oilers, Ducks, and Sharks, the team needs to be very aware of the teams sitting in their rear view mirror.
Seeing Calgary and the Los Angeles Kings in the two wild card spots has to be a bit of a surprise to many. One constant the NHL has seen over the past few years has been the strength of the Central Division, and there was a lot of consensus prior to the season that both wild card spots in the Western Conference would be taken by teams from the Central. Yet, here we are in January with two teams from the Pacific Division holding down the final playoff positions.
Right now, the Kings are only two points behind the Flames for the top Wild Card spot, but do have two games in hand. Perhaps more importantly, both the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators are on the outside looking in, but well within striking distance. The Stars trail Calgary by three points with a game in hand and while the Predators are a full four points back of the Flames, they have three games in hand to make up. Those Central Division teams are right on Calgary’s heels.
— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) January 1, 2017
With the Predators having to put P.K. Subban on the shelf for weeks, and the Stars’ surprisingly pedestrian offense this year (currently 18th in goals for), those teams have their own hurdles to overcome. Make no mistake though, Dallas and Nashville will make a push. The Stars will surely find their offense, and the Preds have too much talent to stay down for long. Calgary is going to need to keep a serious pace to fend off both of those teams as we head into spring.
The Month Ahead
Looking ahead to January, finding some more consistency in their play will give Calgary the opportunity to create a bit of breathing room in the playoff chase. Fortunately, of their 13 games this month, only five will come against teams currently occupying a playoff spot. Two of those games won’t come until the end of the month, either, when the Flames makes their Eastern Canadian road trip, and will play the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
The team absolutely needs to continue to find some depth scoring that it sorely lacked until recently, and ideally one of Elliott or Johnson will step up and take the number one job with more consistent play. But, should Calgary take care of business in a bevy of very winnable games this month, they will have a chance to really put themselves in a prime spot heading into the final stretch of the season.
It all starts Wednesday night against the Avalanche, before a home-and-home with the Canucks on Friday and Saturday.
Calgary-based writer covering all things Flames. Follow me on Twitter @glenneberth