Flames’ Well-Fortified for Critical Stretch Drive

While the NHL is back in full swing after the All-Star festivities in San Jose, the Calgary Flames continue to play the waiting game. The big question revolves around whether the extra R and R will stall the positive momentum of the Western Conference leaders. The Flames headed into their lengthy hiatus firing on all cylinders after compiling an impressive 8-0-1 stretch that included a 3-2 overtime victory in their last appearance back on Jan. 22 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

We won’t find out how this extended downtime will impact the Flames until they hit the ice this weekend for road engagements against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and another date with the Hurricanes in Carolina. However, in assessing their fortunes moving forward, the Flames are well-fortified for a successful stretch drive.

There’s been a great deal to like about a Flames squad that’s put up the kind of numbers and provided the type of entertainment that’s brought up fond memories of the 1989 Stanley Cup winning squad and the 2004 group that made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

Top Guns Lighting up Score Sheet

The Flames have established themselves as a Western Conference powerhouse during this 2018-19 campaign and entered the break with an impressive 33-13-5 record. In the West, they’re tops in points with 71 and goals for with a whopping 190 on the season. Flames’ superstar Johnny Gaudreau and head coach Bill Peters were the only team representatives as part of the Pacific Division All-Stars this past weekend. However, there were a number of other Flame players who easily could’ve received the call to suit up in California.

Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames
Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau celebrates with the bench. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

One of the remarkable aspects to the Flames’ success in 2018-19 has been the stellar work of their top line. Sean Monahan, Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm had instant chemistry that has led to a wealth of production thus far. The shifty Gaudreau has emerged as a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate as league MVP as he sits third in league scoring with 73 points thanks to his 29 goals and 44 assists. His dazzling puck control skills were on full display this past weekend.

The unassuming Monahan is also having a career year with 61 points but it’s the ascension of Lindholm into a top-15 scorer that has been truly unexpected. Nobody could’ve imagined that Lindholm would already have established career-best totals with his 58 points. He’s evolved into a complete player after being acquired in a major offseason transaction with the Hurricanes and has been a tremendous fit on the no. 1 unit.

The Captain Charting a Perfect Course

While Mark Giordano has been a workhorse during his lengthy tenure with the Flames organization, the thought that he would transform into a Norris Trophy candidate at age 35 is something that most observers wouldn’t have predicted this season. Giordano hit the All-Star break second in scoring among defensemen, behind only Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, with his 52 points that include 11 goals and 41 helpers. He’s also a plus-29 and has taken the rest of a relatively young defensive core along on this positive ride.

Flames defensemen Mark Giordano
Flames defensemen Mark Giordano. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Giordano’s partner T.J. Brodie is enjoying a rebound campaign after their reunion, and a blue line that includes 22-and-under talents, such as Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, has been able to thrive thanks in large part to having Giordano as a major role model. Kylington’s confidence was bolstered by producing goals in back-to-back games prior to the break. Juuso Valimaki will soon be available for duty after missing a lengthy period of time due to injury and he’s shown promise as the youngest of the lot at age 20.

Bench Change for the Better

When Bill Peters was first hired by General Manager Brad Treliving to replace Glen Gulutzan behind the Flames’ bench it seemed only natural to wonder how much of an upgrade it would be to go from one non-playoff bench boss to another. However, since coming over from Carolina, Peters has proven to be the perfect fit for this group. His in-game adjustments and read of how a contest is going have proven to be a valuable commodity.

Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters
Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Peters is not afraid to shake things up, such as making veteran Michael Frolik a healthy scratch on a couple of occasions, while Frolik has shown his professionalism by responding in a positive manner. Peters is pushing all the right buttons at the moment and the decision to give previously unproven goaltender David Rittich the no. 1 reins in place of veteran Mike Smith has produced outstanding results. After four missed playoff campaigns in Carolina, Peters is poised to test his coaching instincts in the postseason in 2019.

‘Big Save Dave’ a Major Revelation

It’s been remarkable to see Rittich’s transformation into one of the top netminders in the NHL after a 2017-18 campaign that was a mixed bag when it came to results. He has been directly responsible for several Flames triumphs this season and has been an effective piece of the puzzle since his first start of the season when he turned in a strong performance in an overtime road victory against the Colorado Avalanche.

Scott Laughton, David Rittich
Philadelphia Flyers’ Scott Laughton can’t score on Calgary Flames’ David Rittich. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

His record of 19-4-4 with a save percentage of .918 and a goals-against average of 2.47 has him in the Vezina Trophy conversation as he’s emerged as an important fixture on one of the best teams in the league.  Rittich’s career breakout season is the biggest factor that no one saw coming and he shows no signs of slowing despite the increased workload. While undoubtedly the questions will remain until he gets it done in the postseason, his confidence is high and his teammates have tremendous faith in his abilities.

Depth Scoring and Special Teams’ Strength

There’s no denying that the no. 1 line of Monahan, Gaudreau and Lindholm has been the driving force, but the  Flames’ scoring depth is starting to come to the forefront. While Matthew Tkachuk has been a consistent point producer throughout what’s been a career-best season, others such as Frolik, Mikael Backlund and Sam Bennett have really hit their stride in recent weeks, contributing to a potent attack that is second in the league in goals behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Another area that has led to this outstanding season has been special teams. The Flames’ power play has been a dynamic source of offence with the top unit carrying the load for most of the season. Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm and Giordano are as formidable a top PP group as there is when enjoying a 5-on-4 advantage. An encouraging development has been the contributions from the number two unit with Bennett playing a major role in that resurgence.

Mark Jankowski Flames
Mark Jankowski, Calgary Flames. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the shorthanded front, the Flames lead the NHL with 15 goals. Mark Jankowski has blossomed into a major offensive force on the penalty kill with his four shorthanded markers and has generated a slew of other scoring opportunities on the PK.  Rugged forward Garnet Hathaway has also transformed into a strong contributor with his diligent work on the penalty kill.

Never-Say-Die Flames

Perhaps the team’s strongest asset is their resilience. Outside of an embarrassing 9-1 home-ice shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flames have consistently displayed a never-say-die attitude. That resolve has led to a number of third-period comebacks which has padded their win total and raised the confidence bar. The Flames are tops in the league when it comes to offensive output in the final stanza and they’ve earned their reputation for being the ultimate closers.

Petr Mrazek, Mikael Backlund,
Carolina Hurricanes Petr Mrazek reacts as Calgary Flames’ Mikael Backlund celebrates his game-winning goal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

When you add up all the positives on the ledger, there’s plenty to like about what the Flames have brought to the table but they’ll need to stay consistent with the Sharks within reach in the race for top spot in the Pacific Division. A sign of a truly good team is the ability to win games when they’re not at their best. The Flames have been able to do that on multiple occasions this season including during this latest hot streak in triumphs against the Avalanche, Florida Panthers and the Hurricanes.

It’ll be interesting to see if this extra time off will have any negative impact in cooling off the red-hot Flames but this group has all the necessary ingredients for the critical and intense 31-game stretch drive. A major decline seems unlikely given the talent, consistency and grit that they’ve displayed thus far and they are poised to maintain their lofty status within the upper-tier of the Western Conference landscape.