Since the Calgary Flames dropped the puck on their NHL season Jan. 14 in Winnipeg, the 2020-21 campaign could be described as a rollercoaster ride, a mixed bag or even a hodgepodge of ups and downs. You can take your pick of any of these clichéd expressions, but here’s the bottom line: the Flames ended their first month of the season near the bottom of the North Division with a middling 3-3-1 record that could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the commendable efforts of the 3 Stars of the Month.
First Star: Jacob Markstrom
He was the Flames’ biggest off-season signing and expectations were sky-high for the 6-foot-6 goaltender heading into the year. With two shutouts in January, I think it’s safe to say that Markstrom has surpassed all expectations and has arguably been the team’s best player through the first month of the season. In his first six starts, Markstrom has a 3-2-1 record with a goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.18 and a save percentage (SV%) of .929. While those stats are admittedly middle-of-the-pack for NHL netminders, it has been his steady and calm demeanor between the pipes that has instilled tremendous confidence in the team in front of him.
His third-period heroics against the Jets in the season opener and his stellar shutout performance against Montreal have personally secured three points and have kept the team from falling below .500. What impressed me the most about his first month as a Flame is how well he rebounded after a couple of uneven starts in the two-game set against the Maple Leafs. In last Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Toronto, the 30-year-old Swede struggled, giving up four goals in only 21 shots. Undaunted, Markstrom’s very next start was a 37-save shutout against a team that had yet to lose a game in regulation.
That kind of bounce-back performance is reminiscent of the Flames’ legendary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who always seemed to follow up a rare stinker with a spectacular game. If Calgary hopes to keep pace and find success in the North Division this season, it will likely be on the back of Markstrom. Right now, the team’s 5v5 SV% is .941 – that’s first in the division, which tells me the Flames’ big free-agent signing is getting the job done.
Second Star: Johnny Gaudreau
It’s hard to avoid the catchphrase buzzing all over Calgary these days: “Johnny Hockey is back!” While seven games are not the biggest sample size, there’s no arguing that the diminutive winger is off to an excellent start. Gaudreau has recorded at least a point in every game this year, becoming the first Flames player since Jiri Hudler in 2013-14 to open a season with a seven-game point streak. That’s also the sixth-longest streak to start a season in franchise history.
Gaudreau leads the team in scoring with five goals and nine points in seven outings, which is in stark contrast to last season when it took him 18 games to score four goals. While his current shooting percentage (S%) of 29.4 is completely unsustainable, that hasn’t stopped the accolades from fans, teammates and the coaching staff from pouring in. Head coach Geoff Ward was simply gushing when describing the resurgence of the Flames’ sniper to CalgaryFlames.com.
“His game has been awesome. I think it’s two reasons: Number one, I think he’s really – and his whole line – has been really dialed in to what he’s doing defensively and I think that detail is allowing them to play with the puck more. Secondly, the powerplay has been productive. Between those two things, I think it’s allowed him to start at the pace that he’s at. We’re extremely pleased at the play of the line, and in particular him. He’s been great since Day 1.”
A big reason for all of this early production has been a splendid power-play performance. Six of Gaudreau’s nine points have come with the man advantage, which is cruising along at 29.4%, second only to the division-leading Maple Leafs and eighth overall in the NHL. The PP has scored in each of the first seven games of the 2020-21 season, with Gaudreau’s playmaking ability driving that success.
The Flames’ current leading scorer is starting to look like the player who finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting in 2018-19, and a big part of this comeback has been the winger’s ability to find the back of the net when the team needs it the most. Case in point: No. 13’s game-winning PP goal against the Habs on Saturday night that snapped the Flames’ three-game losing skid and ended the month on a high note. “Johnny Hockey” seems to be shaking off the failures of a 2019-20 campaign that was marked by career lows in nearly every statistical category and has found a way to recapture his lost mojo.
Third Star: Tanev/Hanifin Pairing
OK, I’ll admit choosing a D-pairing as a “star” is a bit weird but the new duo has simply been the best part of the Flames’ defensive core after the first seven games of the season. Since arriving in Calgary for the 2018-19 campaign, Noah Hanifin was penciled in to start in the top four, provide rock-solid defense and add some offensive flair. While the 24-year old has had flashes of being that player over the past two seasons, his overall game has been uneven at best. Maybe all he needed was the right partner at his side. Since pairing up with newcomer Chris Tanev, the chemistry between the two has been terrific and Hanifin has been playing his best hockey since joining the team.
Just how good has the duo of Tanev and Hanifin been? So good that neither of them has given up a 5v5 goal the entire month of January. They don’t lead the team in points by a Flames defensive pairing, but they are a huge reason why the team is allowing only 2.42 goals against per game – the best rate in the North Division. Obviously, Markstrom is also a huge factor in that stat, but the simple fact that Tanev and Hanifin still haven’t been on the ice for an even-strength goal against is very telling of their performance so far.
Flames’ management has to be over the moon that Markstrom and Tanev (the two biggest off-season signings) have both paid huge dividends so early in the 2020-21 season. Those very strong starts, along with the much-heralded resurrection of Gaudreau’s scoring touch, were the obvious places to look when assessing the team’s 3 Stars of the Month. However, as well as these “January stars” have played, the Flames are going to need a more complete effort from the entire roster in the month of February to stay afloat in a very tough division and get back into a playoff position.