With a convincing 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night in Montreal, the Calgary Flames extended their winning streak to three games pulling themselves within four points of the Habs – owners of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. Their fans are asking whether they have finally, not a minute too soon, found their mojo.
Lengthy win streaks for the Flames this season are as rare as sightings of pigs lined up on runways ready to take off at Calgary International Airport. Watching the win streak unfold since last Saturday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, many Flames fans are asking who are these guys playing wearing the Flaming C and what have they done with the real Calgary Flames?
With their team now facing four crucial matchups with the Habs in the next 12 days, a growing number of Calgary fans are daring to ask out loud whether their boys will see ice times instead of tee times in the NHL postseason despite the Habs having three games in hand.
Pundits are asking what explains the Flames’ recent success and whatever it is, will it stick?
Buy-in to the Sutter System
The Flames look like they have finally committed to head coach Darryl Sutter’s system of “playing at pace”. Their puck movement has been simplified and play is north-south along the wall. The costly turnovers from earlier in the season have been reduced dramatically.
Now, everyone knows what they are doing next with the puck when they get it. In the last three games, the Flames have established the lead early and hung on to it for the win. Their dump and chase zone entry combined with a relentless forecheck and the chaos they cause in front of the opposing net is creating high-quality scoring chances.
Understanding and buying into the Sutter system is certainly a large part of the explanation for what fans have seen in the last three games. However, that doesn’t account for everything as Sean Monahan explains below in a postgame presser.
COVID-19’s devastating impact on the Vancouver Canucks gave the Flames extra time for practice – a rarity in this plague-shortened season. Games the Flames couldn’t play against the Canucks last week became desperately needed practice time and that helped them master the Sutter system.
Line Tweak Magic
Heading into their game against the Edmonton Oilers, Sutter adjusted his lines starting by breaking up the long-standing duo of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. The results have been impressive, with the new top line of Elias Lindholm centering Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Hockey exploding for nine points, including four goals in the last three games.
Not only that, but the third line of Milan Lucic, Mikael Backlund and Joakim Nordstrom have combined for a total of five points during this stretch followed by the second line of Monahan, Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube with two goals. Even fourth-liners Josh Leivo and Brett Ritchie are in on the action potting a goal each.
In all, the Flames’ forwards, with a reputation this season for having a very limited offense, have registered a total of 19 points in their last three games. On average, that’s better than six points per game.
Not to be outdone, the Flames’ blueliners have started activating and jumping up into the play more often. That’s something Sutter has been emphasizing for some time and the Flames rearguard seems to have bought into the approach.
The Cowtown back end has combined for a total of four goals and two assists in the last three tilts with the new top pairing of Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev accounting for four of the defense corps’ eight-point production.
Notching two goals and an assist since being paired with Tanev, Giordano seems determined to provide his team with the leadership they need to make it into the postseason.
Giordano, the heart and soul of the Flames is finally showing flashes of his 2018-19 Norris Trophy-winning season. In response, his team is stepping up to meet his example.
If there were doubts about the Flames’ Jacob Markstrom’s health or whether he truly is in the top ranks of the goaltending business, the team’s three consecutive wins during which he allowed just three goals and established a .957 save percentage seems to have settled any debate. He has quite simply been stellar between the Calgary pipes.
During the last three games, Markstrom has stopped 67 shots from three of the North Division’s playoff teams. He stared down Auston Matthews, the leading scorer in the league, Connor McDavid (#3) and Leon Draisaitl (#4) and held them all off the scoreboard.
Still Long Odds for Flames in the Playoffs, But Flames Believe
Mathematically, the Flames still have a shot at clawing their way into the playoffs but the odds are long. It is widely assumed that a team will need 65 points to make it into the top four of any division and that means the boys in red will need to take 24 points of a possible 26 in their remaining 13 games. Montreal on the other hand needs to play at a comparatively easy .625 points percentage pace to secure a ticket to the playoffs.
If the Flames are questioning themselves in the face of these odds it doesn’t show. They haven’t thrown in the towel yet as evidenced by a lineup that is sticking with the team’s best players rather than calling up potential minor league prospects for a test drive before next season as some recommend.
To a man, the Flames appear to believe they can knock off the Habs in their upcoming four games and squeak into the playoffs. As Flames general manager Brad Treliving put it, “we’ve got lots of hockey left to go”. (from “Buyer or Seller? Flames GM Treliving’s trade deadline moves don’t fit either definition” Calgary Sun, 12/04/2021)
Noah Hannifin echoed Treliving saying after Wednesday’s win, “We have some ground to make up. In this division, you’re going to get those head-to-head games where you can really climb back and this is the team (Montreal) we’re chasing. We know how important these games are.”
The Home Stretch
Having knocked off three playoff teams in the last week, the Flames are playing with confidence now. They seem to believe they can win against any team on any given night. That makes them dangerous.
They understand that the upcoming stretch of five games against Montreal will define their season. That makes them desperate.
Confidence and desperation will make for compelling drama over the next 12 days.
Paul covers the Calgary Flames, the Ottawa Senators and the OHL’s Ottawa 67s for The Hockey Writers (THW). He also hosts the Flames Faceoff show for THW’s Podcast Network.
Paul has been sought for media interviews for the thoughtful pieces he has written on hockey’s response to the major social and political issues of the day including the place of gay players in the game. Paul is also known for his interesting perspectives on the key issues and challenges facing the teams he follows.
Of his work with THW, Paul says, “I love to tell stories about the game of hockey and the personalities – both past and present, who have made it the greatest game on the planet!”
Follow him on Twitter at @pquinney