On Jan. 21 of this year I went to see the Calgary Flames play the Edmonton Oilers at the Saddledome in Calgary. Nothing odd there - I have gone to five or six games a year most years since the team arrived in Calgary in 1980. What stands out about this particular game, though, is how awful it was. It was, without a doubt, the worst game I have ever been to in person. The score was 7-3, but that was very flattering for the home team. Calgary did absolutely nothing well. They looked lost. Hopeless. And it seemed like that is just what they were. It was their second loss in a row and their sixth of eight losses in a 3-8 stretch. At that point I, and most people in Calgary, would have happily sold pretty much any player on the team. It felt like it was time to start over.
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The last game of that 3-8 stretch was a 5-1 loss to Montreal. Again, a truly horrible game. After, head coach Glen Gulutzan lost his mind. It was the first time the first-year coach had done that. The next day the team had a meeting to air grievances. And since that day - Jan. 26 - they are the best team in the NHL. Their 15-2-1 record is currently being built up by a franchise-best 10-game winning streak. Last time out they beat Pittsburgh, a team that looks very ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
This is a team that was dead last in the NHL by win percentage at the end of November. Now they have all but locked down a playoff spot, are tied for second in their division, and are not a team that any other team would look forward to facing in the playoffs. It's an incredibly dramatic turnaround.
The question, of course, is why? And what does it mean for bettors? Here are six factors to consider when considering this team:
The top line: Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan both got huge contracts this past summer, with the expectation that they would lead this team for years to come. Early on it went very poorly. Gaudreau held out through much of training camp and missed significant time with a hand injury. Monahan was injured in the leadup to the World Cup of Hockey and was very slow out of the gate. Neither guy looked comfortable, they didn't handle the pressure well, and it was fast becoming a lost season. They were separated at times, and several different players played with them. Nothing worked. They started to turn a corner nicely in January, but after Michael Ferland was moved up to play wing with them they became a whole new unit. They have been just dominant over this winning streak and are what they need to be heading into the playoffs.
Defensive changes: The top three defenders for this team - captain Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie - are truly elite. The issues have been beyond that, though. Brodie and Giordano were paired the last couple of years, but this year Giordano and Hamilton have been a pair and Brodie was the odd man out. His play suffered because no matter who he was with he was being dragged down. The team was active at the deadline, bringing in Matt Bartkowski and Michael Stone. Stone and Brodie have been great together, and Bartkowski has elevated the bottom pairing. Stone is currently injured, but it shouldn't be that way for long.
Goaltending: The team started over in net this season, bringing in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson after a disastrous year last year. Early on neither was any good. Johnson got hot for a while, but Elliott struggled. Traditionally, though, Elliott has been a second-half goalie. Since that disaster in Montreal he has been brilliant. He had consecutive shutouts last week and has stood on his head throughout. For the first time in years the Flames feel like they have a goalie who can steal games for them. Ask Montreal or the Kings or the Rangers what that has felt like over the last few years.
Coaching: Gulutzan had an early chance at coaching in Dallas. It didn't go great, though as is too often the case with young coaches he was fired before he had really had a chance. He went back to being an assistant - most recently in Vancouver - and built up his skill set. Then he got his second chance in Calgary. He was a very different style than what had come before, and early on it went really poorly. There were real rumors that he wouldn't make it to Christmas. At some point, though, his systems became instinctive and players started to buy in. What was once a serious issue is now an asset.
Schedule: They only have 13 games left , but it isn't an easy road. Next up is Boston - the second-hottest team in the league since Calgary's turnaround. They have a three-game road trip featuring a stop in Washington. They play their California rivals a whole lot - L.A. three times and the Ducks and Sharks twice each. Colorado is the only really easy opponent. If they stay confident and healthy then they can manage it - in recent games they beat a Montreal team badly that was in the midst of their own winning streak, beat Pittsburgh, and swept a four-game eastern road swing. If they were to stumble, though, it would be really easy slide into a slump heading into the playoffs.
Betting performance: Needless to say, the team has been a pleasure to bet on the moneyline over the last six weeks. The issue, though, is that they struggled so much early on that they are only now back to a break-even level on the season. They should wind up profitable if they stay in reasonably solid form down the stretch, but the word is out on them and they aren't sneaking up on teams at big moneyline prices anymore. They haven't been much better on the total, either - they have gone "under" 33 times and "over" 28, so there aren't significant profits to be made there. Over the winning streak, the over is at 7-9-2, so things haven't changed on this front despite changing so significantly in other ways.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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