Calgary Flames road trip couldn’t come at a better time

Sports

After losing five of six at home since Jan. 20, heading out on the road for a six-game trip is the perfect tonic for the Calgary Flames. 

The importance of beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday should not be overstated. It was, in a way, a peace-offering for Calgary’s fans, who, over the last three weeks, watched helplessly as their beloved team dropped into 10th place in the Western Conference.

Sean Monahan’s overtime winner on Saturday will restore belief in the locker room, injecting confidence as the boys depart for the second half of the back-to-back with Chicago.

In a recent interview, Glen Gulutzan said his team doesn’t mind playing on the road. His answer is a candidate for biggest understatement of the year. He does, however, get points for modesty.

Calgary Flames’ impressive road record

The Flames head to the Windy City with the third best away record (13-5-5) in the league in terms of winning percentage, trailing only Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston. Eight games above .500, the Flames have won four of their last five away encounters.

Maybe suffering from holding their sticks too tightly at home, Gulutzan’s team can get back to basics during the forthcoming trip.

Winning four of six would be a successful stint, particularly considering the Flames have to play on back-to-back nights against two teams – the Rangers (17-9-3) and Devils (15-8-3) – that are tough to beat at home.

After that the Flames play the Islanders, Bruins and Predators before returning home on Feb. 17. As you can see, none of those games are of an easy variety, with the final two offering especially difficult tests.

But don’t put anything past the Flames, who have proven time and again to be worthy of their road warriors moniker. It’s crucial to sweep the mini-series against the Blackhawks, the worst of the six at home (12-10-3).

Mike Smith, with a league-leading .948 road save percentage, has been lights-out in unfriendly confines all season, and Gulutzan’s men support their all-star netminder proficiently on the road, locking it down in their own end.

In five recent away games, the Flames have conceded only nine goals, which equates to 1.8 goals against per game. In comparison, the Bruins, who concede 2.38 goals on average, lay claim to the league’s stingiest defence this season.

Those paltry numbers combined with Calgary’s propensity for finding the back of the net bode well for the current road trip.

The Flames have scored 3.8 goals per game in the last five away outings, which, albeit over a small sample size, tops the Lightning’s league-best 3.56 per game.

If they can maintain those impressive numbers at either end of the ice, the Flames will further cement their status as one of the league’s most dangerous road teams.

(This piece originally featured on Flame for Thought. Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Calgary Flames’ Mike Smith hopes to start enjoying some home cooking

Sports

Mike Smith, looking for a bounce-back game, is hoping to reproduce his impeccable away form when the Calgary Flames host the Blackhawks tonight. 

Overall, Smith has enjoyed a stellar season between the pipes. He’s unarguably one of the team’s most consistent performers and rarely takes a night off, with the exception of a frustrating evening against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

A large discrepancy, however, does exist between Smith’s home and away outings.

The 35-year-old has a .948 save percentage away from home, the best of any NHL netminder in unfriendly environs.

He is the embodiment of a road warrior, going 9-3-3 in 15 away starts. Smith’s paltry 1.83 goals against average (GAA) in road games would, in isolation, put him behind only Carter Hutton (1.70 overall GAA) and Marc-Andre Fleury (1.79 overall GAA).

Smith hasn’t been able to match those otherworldly numbers in front of Flames’ faithful at the Scotiabank Saddledome. The contrast is stark, with Smith’s save percentage dropping almost five percent, to .905. His GAA swells on home ice to 2.89, a large enough gulf to warrant further inquest.

What’s wrong with Smith’s Calgary Flames home cooking?

Firstly, the sample size probably has something to do with the existing chasm between Smith’s home and away performances. He’s played in 28 games at home, while only making 15 road starts.

That caveat isn’t reason enough to explain his drop in form at the Dome, though. While not nearly as demanding as Montreal fans, Flames’ faithful have high expectations of their number one netminder. But Smith’s expects just as much from himself, if not more, than the exacting Calgary crowd.

Plus, you wouldn’t expect a wily, well-versed veteran like Smith to succumb to pressure, no matter how immense. You can’t put it down to bad fortune either, as the gulf in numbers is too big to substantiate that reasoning.

That leaves me with one clear-cut explanation: Smith is only as good as the support his team offers in front of him. Calgary, as a collective, have been poor in what are supposed to be friendly confines. The Flames have a grotesque 12-13-3 home record, the fourth worst in the Western Conference.

For Smith to assimilate unconditionally to life in Calgary, his team must improve markedly at the Dome, making their relatively new netminder feel more at home.

Until that happens, Smith won’t be able to enjoy and appreciate the home cooking Calgary has to offer.

(This piece originally featured no Flame For Thought. Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

What is behind the Flames’ recent third period collapses?

Sports

Before consecutive third period collapses against Las Vegas and Tampa Bay, the Flames were one of the most reliable teams in the league at shutting down shop when leading after two. 

What a difference a few days can make.

Flames fans, prior to Jan. 30, could rest easy with the lead going into the third, knowing their team were almost certainties to secure the win, evinced by their 89 percent winning ratio in such situations.

The Flames, who boasted a 17-0-2 record when up after two, led the Golden Knights 2-1 with 1:47 to play.

Then came Michael Frolik’s moment of madness, his wayward backward pass turning into a shot on his own netminder. Understandably caught off guard, Mike Smith was only able to push the puck back into harm’s way.

Erik Haula couldn’t believe his luck and dually obliged, punishing Frolik for his haphazardness. It’s impossible not sympathize with Frolik, who had just return from a long injury layoff. Too outrageous to avoid further punishment, it was a eureka moment that burst Calgary’s bubble.

Ten seconds later the Golden Knights scored the winner, obliterating the Flames’ unbeaten regulation record when taking a lead into the third. Calgary enjoyed an otherwise near flawless performance against the top team in the Western Conference, dictating play until that fateful moment.

Those type of heartbreaking losses are more difficult to recover from, the devastating defeat compounded by the fact the Flames had already lost four on the bounce.

Worrying third period signs against Tampa

The signs were more worrying in the third against the Lightning, symptomatic of a team devoid of confidence and assuredness. Smith, usually one of the team’s most consistent performers, looked apprehensive and unsure.

Uncharacteristically, he conceded two weak ones from bad angles in just over five minutes, turning the game in Tampa’s favour. The initial momentum shift occurred in the second when Matthew Peca halved Calgary’s lead, but it was Alex Killorn’s leveller in the third that totally deflated Glen Gulutzan’s team.

In coughing up a second successive third-period advantage, the Flames fell from 14th to 24th in holding the lead after two.

They have lost six in a row and must overcome and extinguish quickly any feelings of self-pity or skepticism. Because at this level the difference between winning and losing has a lot to do with confidence and self-belief.

The Flames have the talent, depth and skill set to make a run to the playoffs, so long as they swat sternly away the devil currently perched on their collective shoulder.

(This piece originally featured on Flame For Thought. Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Calgary Flames firing on all cylinders despite Bruins loss

Sports

The Flames fell a victory shy of winning a franchise-record 11 consecutive games in a 5-2 defeat to the Bruins, but the result isn’t dampening the team’s soaring spirit.

There is tremendous optimism in Calgary, even in the aftermath of their recent 5-2 loss.

The Flames tied a franchise record with 10 wins on the bounce when they defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a shootout on Monday. The Flames weren’t even in Calgary the last time a 10-game-winning streak was strung together.

The last time such a streak was achieved was in 1978, when the franchise was known as the Atlanta Flames.

Sure, lengthy winning streaks are more commonplace in today’s NHL, but this upstart Flames unit should be exceedingly proud of what they accomplished.

Had it not been for a rusty Chad Johnson, who started in place of the unwell Brian Elliott, I could be talking about history being made in Calgary last night. Johnson, prior to the Bruins defeat, last started in a 4-2 win in Florida on Feb. 24.

That’s a long time to sit on the pine. And boy oh boy did it show. It was as if Johnson had awoken from an extended winter hibernation.

He was culpable for two of Boston’s goals, the first of which was scored by David Pastrnak. Pastrnak burst down the wing and snuck an innocuous shot through Johnson’s five-hole.

The second came from a center ice backhand dump in. Johnson flubbed his attempt to control and Brad Marchand, the league’s hottest scorer, was the lucky recipient of the netminder’s unintentional generosity.

You’re only as good as your weakest link

The Flames, barring last night’s disappointing result, have a lot to be excited about. There is a multitude of reasons for the Flames recent success, none of which are more important than Brian Elliott’s transformation.

Elliott endured a rough start to his Calgary career, losing his first three starts in a Flames uniform. Things didn’t get much better for the 31-year-old netminder, who went on an eight-game losing streak in the inchoate stage of the season. Elliott had an unenviable 8-13-2 record to start his Flames tenure.

But anyone who understands hockey had reason to believe Elliott would turn it around. And turn it around he did. Elliott has won nine on the bounce and is 13-1-1, enjoying a .936 save percentage and a 1.93 GAA in his last 15 decisions.

Those numbers put him among the NHL’s élite netminders.

But Elliott’s success is just one of the innumerable reasons why the Flames have the best record, 15-2-1, in the last 18 games.

Rewind back to Jan. 24 when the Flames were embarrassed in a 5-1 trouncing away to Montreal. Flames coach Glen Gulutzan was not amused, his comments in the aftermath underpinning what he thought of his team’s anemic display.

“We were pathetic,” Gulutzan said in the post-game press conference.

“It was a pathetic display, No bite-back. No kick-back. Just accept it, right down. Our top guys didn’t do anything.

“We need somebody to step up.”

His words had their desired effect and galvanized the entire Flames squad. Since that defeat, the Flames are 15-3-1.

The Flames’ young offensive core

The Flames young, dynamic offensive core might be the most promising feature of this current, trailblazing team. Calgary’s offensive core is the second youngest in the league. At an average age of just over 25 years, the Flames, if they can keep this lively and energized unit intact, have a prodigious future to look forward to.

Johnny Gaudreau had a frustrating start to the 2016-17 season, the highest paid Flames player endured a run of just one goal in 20 games.

Gulutzan at one point demoted the diminutive star to the fourth line. But like most of his teammates, Gaudreau is back on the right track. A nightmare to play against, Gaudreau is once again at his elusive best, playing like a firefly possessed.

The Flames are enjoying balanced scoring from all four lines, but the Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Micheal Ferland line have picked up the most slack. They’re once again the team’s top line, both in name and practice.

And let’s not forget about the Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik triumvirate. If not for this line carrying the team during the nascent part of the season, the Flames wouldn’t be in the playoff place they find themselves in.

The Michael Stone acquisition

Calgary’s general manager should also take a bow for his part in strengthening the squad.

In an astute piece of business, Brad Treliving masterminded the deal that brought defenceman Michael Stone to Calgary for third and fifth-round draft picks.

As if the Flames needed another Michael on the team. But this Michael has paid immediate dividends.

Stone has yet to lose since arriving in Calgary, the 26-year-old is 8-0 while patrolling the Flames’ blue line. He has missed the last three games due to an upper body injury, so the entire city awaits his return with bated breath.

With the playoffs less than a month away, this team have come into their own at the opportune time. You’d be hard pressed to find a Western Conference team excited about a prospective first-round matchup with the Flames.

Channeling their boundless energy and honing in on their fearless bravado, this team is firing on all cylinders.

Flames fans are starved for success as they haven’t seen their beloved team lift Lord Stanley for almost 30 years.

But the current excitement in the city is palpable, and it’s seems like the start of something special in Calgary.

Other NHL teams would be best served to stand up and take notice.

(This piece originally appeared on Flame for Thought.Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)