Sporting a seven-game win streak as the NHL campaign passes the midway mark, the Calgary Flames are poised to separate from the tightly-clustered Pacific and grab one of the West’s three available non-wild card births.
While it’s too early to think all that deeply about playoff chances, southern Alberta might enjoy looking at the state of the division during this bye break. With Arizona, Vancouver, and rival Edmonton bringing up the conference rear and showing few signs of contending, an eight-team race looks more like a five-pack.
Standing a point behind them in the race to catch Vegas, Los Angeles has lost its early-year luster, their record hovering around .500 in play since mid-December. San Jose is their closest challenger, and perhaps more of a worry sitting four points behind with four games in hand. The less injury-battered Ducks stand just a point behind the Sharks.
But with the Micheal Ferland – Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan line racking up some impressive numbers, particularly at even strength, and Mike Smith/David Rittich perhaps a more promising combo than Brian Elliott/Chad Johnson once postseason hits, they may have more playoff promise than last year’s version Anaheim swept in the opening round.
Ferland’s assumed a key role as, of all things, a goal scorer. With just 21 goals in 173 career NHL games prior to this campaign, his 19 goals through the first few games of the second half are surprising. While his top-line play is surely a help, it’s not like this is the first time he’s skated with Gaudreau and Monahan as he spent nearly half of his 5v5 time with the duo during 2016-17 and slightly more with them on the power play.
Most of that occurred in the later portions of last year as Ferland tallied nine of his 14 second half points lining up with them. This year he’s logged over 90% of his 5v5 and close to 80% of his total power play time with both, contributing to an almost four-minute average TOI per game increase over 2016-17.
Add banner years from Gaudreau who is on pace to blow away his career production numbers (15 G, 39 A in 45 contests, 1.20 points per-game average as compared with 0.88 per game in his three-and-a-half NHL years) and ranks fourth league-wide in points, and Monahan sitting in the NHL’s top ten in goals, and we may have a less-stoppable unit.
Their top line’s recent slump-busting tear (Gaudreau’s 13 points during their win streak, Monahan’s ten in the same span and Ferland with nine) is a positive step in that direction.
Calgary’s lack of forward depth seemed to drag them down as 2016-17 wore on, and we’ll see if that happens again. There has been promise though.
Despite Michael Frolik’s broken jaw breaking up the vaunted 3M line, Jaromir Jagr’s limited production, and Kris Versteeg’s hip injury and subsequent surgery there is life below the top line. Gathering penalties less frequently than last year, with an elevated shot percentage (11.3%), and on pace to surpass last year’s shots total by nearly 100, Matthew Tkachuk’s also lighting up the scoreboard. His ten points in the last ten contests has been helped by his recent inclusion on the Flames’ top power play unit along with fellow “M” Mikael Backlund.
Known for his defensive prowess it’s a little strange that he’s a minus-7 this late in the year, but Backlund’s still maintaining a CF% rel of 4.9 and near last year’s career-best 0.65 points-per-game average . Troy Brouwer hasn’t been the offensive cohort Frolik was and should again be, nor is his defense something to boast about with a -6.1 CF% rel. He’s picking up some of the PIM Tkachuk has left on the table with 40 in 44 games however and hasn’t slowed the line down in any severely debilitating way.
There is great hope that Calgary’s youngish third line - Sam Bennett (21), Mark Jankowski (23) and Garnet Hathaway (26) – can kick it back in gear and score like they did in late November/early December. After that seven game span in which the three totaled 16 points things have cooled off, but there are still signs of life from the young three – Jankowski’s three point game against Vancouver, Bennett tallying a goal and three assists in the same, and Hathaway dishing out the grit with plentiful hits to keep him worth rostering in deep multi-cat leagues.
The power play’s a sore spot and Versteeg’s absence hasn’t helped. Currently 19th in the league at 18% Versteeg’s eight power play goals, which tied Monahan for Calgary’s best on the man advantage in 2016-17, and 16 power play points placing him second on the squad along with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are missed. While not looking pretty, Versteeg was a key factor in the Flames’ 20.2% success percentage – good for tenth last year. Although there’s no timetable for a return, getting him back in time for a playoff push could be big.
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