To say the Calgary Flames are among the NHL’s elite teams, or to say they’re among the Stanley Cup favorites, would be incorrect. They still have a ways to go before they reach that level. But that doesn’t mean winning the Cup is impossible or un-achievable this season.
No one expected the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes or the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings to be raising the Stanley Cup come June, but with a goaltender getting hot in the playoffs and everything coming together at just the right time, the unexpected happened.
There’s no question the Flames have all the pieces of a playoff team, and anything less than a playoff berth would no doubt be a disappointment. But there’s a big difference between a playoff team and a Stanley Cup contender. Underdog stories exist for a reason, and if everything falls into place the way it has for past Stanley Cup champions, the Flames could be this season’s Cinderella story.
Mike Smith Gets Hot
It’s not uncommon to hear of a team riding their goaltender all the way to a Stanley Cup triumph. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it, to a certain extent, last year with Matt Murray, the Kings did it in 2011-12 with Jonathan Quick and the Hurricanes did it in 2005-06 with Cam Ward.
If the Flames want to make a dark horse championship run, Mike Smith will need to be at his absolute best. So far this season, he’s been all the Flames were hoping for, and more. His 2.57 GAA and .919 save percentage, as of Dec. 29, leave him in the top 15 of both categories. But it’s not all about the numbers.
In almost every game he’s played, Smith’s made multiple game-saving stops that eventually led to a Flames victory. He’s come up big in the most critical moments, which is what’s needed for a Stanley Cup run.
“Mike Smith has been terrific,” said Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke in a Sportsnet article. “We think he’s an elite goaltender that played on poor teams, and his statistics suffered accordingly.”
If the Flames are going to fulfill the Stanley Cup dream, Smith will need to be the MVP of the team and a strong candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It’ll be just one of the multiple things the Flames will need to do to have a championship season.
Although keeping the puck out of the net is important, putting it in the opposition net is just as important. Yes, the usual suspects in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk will provide offense, as they always do. But in order to win the Stanley Cup, the scoring needs to come from elsewhere, in addition to the big-time scorers.
As most Flames fans will recall, secondary scoring was something the club struggled mightily with early on in the season. They have since remedied that problem and are now receiving welcome production from their bottom six.
Looking back at the last two Stanley Cup victories of the Penguins, their usual snipers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all found the scoresheet regularly, but it was the production of the lesser-known names that played a key role in their championship runs. Players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary were names most people hadn’t heard much about until their playoff performances.
If the Flames are to win the Stanley Cup, players like Sam Bennett, Mark Jankowski and Michael Ferland are going to have to become the lesser-known names that shine, along with the usual suspects.
“I feel like my game’s been going in the right direction, and our line has been generating chances, and I’ve felt pretty good about my game the last couple weeks,” said Bennett in a Sportsnet article. “Even when it wasn’t going in, we were getting a lot of good looks. As long as you’re getting those, I knew the production would come.”
Elite Defensive Play
A common saying heard in the majority of sports is “defense wins championships.” Well, it certainly rings true in hockey, and in order for the Flames to win the Stanley Cup, their defense has to be tops in the NHL.
When the Flames acquired Travis Hamonic in the off-season, many were designating them as the best defense in the NHL. Early in the season, it appeared to be a false designation as the Flames owned one of the worst shots-against averages in the league. However, much like their secondary scoring, they’ve turned it around in a big way of late.
If the defense can play as good as they look on paper for the entire duration of the playoffs, it would be the final piece to complete the Stanley Cup-winning puzzle.
If the Flames can receive MVP-type play from Smith, generate secondary scoring and have their defense play to it’s elite ability, they can win it all. Sure, the odds are not on their side and they have to make the playoffs first, but underdogs exist for a reason, as do their Cinderella stories.
Any team that makes the playoffs has a chance at winning the Stanley Cup, and the Flames will need all of the above to happen if they hope to have this be their year.