Melee Sparks Calgary Flames Hot Second Half

January 18, 2014 was a Saturday. As is customary, the National Hockey League held 13 games. Based on how their seasons had gone to that point, you wouldn’t have expected the late Hockey Night in Canada game between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks to be of much importance.

The Flames entered the game with a 16-26-6 record, having lost 8 of their prior 10 games and generally looking like the bottom-dwelling team many pundits expected them to be. The Canucks were 24-16-9, and while they had lost a few games in a row, they were still firmly in a wildcard position and primed to break out of their funk and perhaps make a run at one of the Pacific Divison’s playoff spots.

Then the game happened, and everything changed. For both teams.

Calgary started their fourth line. Vancouver followed suit. A line brawl erupted, resulting in 152 minutes in penalties, eight ejections, a hefty fine to Flames coach Bob Hartley (for creating the powder-keg situation) and a lengthy suspension to Canucks coach John Tortorella (for lighting the proverbial match). Tortorella even came charging into the visiting team’s hallway, still irked about the line brawl.

Since that game, the fortunes of both teams have changed radically.

As of April 8, 2014, the Flames have gone 18-12-1 since January 18. The Canucks have gone 11-17-2. Almost all of Calgary’s metrics have improved in the interim – goals for, goals against, penalty kill, power-play, their goaltending, their shooting, their…everything. But can a line brawl and some ejections account for the massive up-ticks Calgary’s experienced in most of their metrics?

“I think that’s one of the things about the numbers game is that it can’t account exactly for the impact something like that will have on a team and the ability for a team to gel,” said Flames winger Kevin Westgarth. “That was a really cool game for us and I think it really made everybody join together a little bit more. It let us loosen up a little bit, too. Everybody, we were telling stories and having a great time with it afterwards, and I think that goes a long way for how a team performs together and how they behave as a unit.”

While the team bristled at the notion that they’d definitely be low in the standings (even during training camp), the “us against the world” mentality really crystallized following the brawl at Rogers Arena. Blueliners Ladislav Smid and Chris Butler were tossed from the game due to the brawl, and Shane O’Brien got hit with a 10-minute misconduct later in the period, leaving the Flames with just three defensemen (Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman and T.J. Brodie) and 10 forwards for much of the game.

“Everybody in that game, whether they were in the fight or not in the fight, everybody was part of a team effort,” said Westgarth. “Even though we ended up losing that game, that game in San Jose two nights later might’ve been maybe the best game we’d played at that point of the year. We ended up losing again 3-2, but after that we started going in the right direction and wins started coming.”

Westgarth noted that the club’s pack mentality and work ethic has produced wins for the club late in the season, but may have also created a foundation for the future. Rebuilding a hockey club can seem daunting, but given that the Flames have won 34 games (to date), the process for next season becomes searching for a way to turn the tide on five more games (and climb to the .500 mark. With the standard being set now for the younger players, that may not be too tall an order.

“The way we’re approaching the game is great right now,” said Westgarth. “We’ve got a lot of young guys up and the goal is obviously to teach them how to do things right, to get those fundamentals guaranteed, game-in, game-out. Making sure that we’re playing the same way, top-to-bottom, every night. I think that’ll pay dividends going forward in the future. Obviously that’s ultimately the goal, to win more games.”

Admittedly, coach Bob Hartley’s decision to start his fourth line that night was a bit dodgy. But the ensuing brawl seems to have corrected a Flames club that was veering dangerously off-course. While the team will undoubtedly lose some key pieces next season, the foundation of hard work laid this year – along with the perception that the approach can actually result in wins for a team with more determination than talent – will likely pay dividends in the future.