Flames Tying up Loose Ends as Playoffs Loom

It has been a roller coaster ride for the Calgary Flames in the second half of this 2018-19 NHL regular season. Coming in hot after the holidays to start off 2019, the Flames then faced a number of difficult losing slides down the stretch.

Despite their troubles, however, this tenacious Flames club has found a way to bounce back every single time. Adversity has led to a series of winning streaks that includes a season-high seven-game run to close out February.

While the Flames’ struggles left the door open for conference rivals (most notably the San Jose Sharks) to bridge the gap in the standings, Calgary has battled hard to maintain their top position. As we speak, the Flames continue to lead the Western Conference and the Pacific Division, holding a strong six-point lead over the Sharks for both coveted spots.

Mike Smith, Marcus Sorensen
Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith takes a tripping penalty on San Jose Sharks’ Marcus Sorensen. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal)

According to Darren Haynes, four more regulation wins will ensure that the Flames clinch both the Pacific and the West. Considering that Calgary’s final stretch includes matchups against the Anaheim Ducks, LA Kings, and Edmonton Oilers, the odds are looking pretty good.

In their last seven games, the Flames have recorded six victories, with their only loss incurred at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place on Mar. 16. It was a narrow 2-1 contest that marked the tail end of a back-to-back schedule. On the previous night (Mar. 15), Calgary defeated the New York Rangers at the Saddledome in a 5-1 rout.

With this run, the Flames are tying up loose ends in their game, with several key players rebounding after weeks of stalled performances. With only seven games remaining, and the playoffs just fourteen days away, Calgary’s pieces are falling into place, a development that could not be happening at a better time.

Flames’ Top Stars Roar Back From Slump

There was a point in recent weeks when the Flames’ top players weren’t doing so hot. Not only did the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan hit a wall in terms of productivity, but breakout star forward Matthew Tkachuk also fell under that spell at the same time. Overall, the team’s marquee players all looked to be running on fumes.

The slowdown began on Feb. 22 against the Anaheim Ducks, and did not end until Mar. 10, with the momentous 6-3 beat-down of the Vegas Golden Knights at the Saddledome. While tallying a few points here and there during the slump, there was more than one occasion during this timespan when the Flames’ Big Four players failed to record a single point.

In their comeback game versus the Golden Knights, Tkachuk exploded with three goals and one assist to record his first career hat trick. That Sunday night victory marked the end of the Flames’ four-game slide and the beginning of their current 6-1 run. From that victory onward, the Flames’ top players have all rediscovered their rhythm, to varying degrees.

Matthew Tkachuk
Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk celebrates a goal with his teammates. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

On Mar. 12 versus the New Jersey Devils, Gaudreau recorded a career-high six points, including a hat trick to match Tkachuk’s in the previous game. The 9-4 thrashing was made possible by six unanswered Flames goals in the third period. Tkuchuk also had a hand in that victory with a goal late in the game.

While less spectacularly than Gaudreau and Tkachuk, top forwards Lindholm and Monahan have also found ways to contribute. In the last seven games, Lindholm has tallied five points including one goal and four assists. Monahan, who only played five of the last seven games due to sickness, still managed to record one goal and three assists.

Though putting up more modest numbers than Gaudreau and Tkachuk, Lindholm and Monahan have still included themselves in the resurgence of the team’s top forwards and the overall mechanics of the team’s winning formula.

Rittich Finding Success Once Again

It was a long road back for David Rittich. After slipping up against the San Jose Sharks in a heated grudge match on Feb. 7, the goalie’s struggles then poured over into subsequent games, resulting in three consecutive losses. After Calgary’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 12, Rittich quietly became obscure, with Mike Smith taking the wheel as the starting goaltender.

Flames goalie David Rittich
Flames goalie David Rittich (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Following an extended rest period, Rittich made his return against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Mar. 4. It was the first of two unsuccessful comeback efforts, as the Flames fell 6-2 to the Leafs. His next try came against the Golden Knights on Mar. 6, when the Flames fell 2-1 at T-Mobile Arena.

Though it took a while for Rittich to recover, the young goaltender showed patience and resilience on his way back to prominence. As a result, Rittich’s hard work will pay off in subsequent performances.

In the rematch game versus Vegas, when Tkachuk and the Flames lit up the Golden Knights 6-3 to snap their four-game slide, it was Rittich between the pipes. Turning away 25 of 28 shots to help his club to victory, the Calgary crowd rejoiced to see the reemergence of “Big Save Dave”.

Malcolm Subban, Andrew Mangiapane
Vegas Golden Knights goalie Malcolm Subban lets in a goal from Calgary Flames’ Andrew Mangiapane. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Building off that win, Rittich went on to man the net against the Devils in the Flames’ 9-4 victory, and then the 5-1 win against the Rangers thereafter. His most recent success came against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Mar. 19, when Calgary walked away with a 4-2 victory.

Having played four of the Flames’ last seven games, Rittich helped his team to victory in all of them. The Flames’ single loss to the Jets occurred with Smith as the starter.

Things Look up for Smith, Too

Speaking of Smith, the veteran goaltender is not doing so bad himself. Although his name may be attached to the Flames’ single loss in their recent 6-1 record, the club’s two recent victories must also be attributed to Smitty’s efforts.

Against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, Mar. 21, Smith stopped 18 of 19 shots to help Calgary bury Ottawa 5-1. Then, on Saturday night, Mar. 23, he turned away 28 of 29 shots to secure the Flames’ 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

In these two contests, it should be noted that Smith only allowed one goal per game, recording a save percentage of .958, with 46 saves on 48 shots. From his numbers, Smith is showing that he still has what it takes to get the job done. Along with Rittich’s return, the Flames’ tumultuous goaltending situation looks to be tightening up again, at least for now.

Calgary Flames' Austin Czarnik
Calgary Flames’ Austin Czarnik catches the puck. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ben Nelms)

Whether it be the return of their offence or the awakening of both of their embattled netminders, the Flames are coming down the stretch with key players in place. As the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot in this 2018-19 campaign, and putting up numbers unseen since their Cup-winning season in 1988-89, this Flames squad is making waves.

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the Flames are not only poised to lock down the Pacific Division and the Western Conference but are in a position to do some damage in the postseason as well. Meanwhile in the Red Mile, Calgary fans are saddling up for what will likely be a wild playoff run.