NHL Expert Handicapping: Calgary Flames Surging Towards Playoff Spot
The Calgary Flames are the latest example of how quickly things can change in the NHL when things are as tight and competitive as they are right now. In two weeks the Calgary Flames went from 11 points behind the L.A. Kings, which sat second in the Pacific Division, and out of the playoffs, to a point ahead of the Kings and in second place themselves. The recipe was pretty simple. The Flames won seven straight - including one over L.A. - while the Kings lost four in a row and took their bye week as well.
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There is still a whole lot of hockey to play, and the Flames are on their bye week now and have been caught by a San Jose team with a three-game win streak of their own going. But Calgary has started to separate themselves from the pack fighting for wild card scraps and is starting assert themselves in the heart of the crowded Pacific race.
That leaves an obvious question for bettors - are the Flames for real? Can they sustain what they are doing now, or will they revert to the inconsistent and underwhelming play of earlier in the year again? I live just a couple of miles from their home arena, so I know the Flames as well as any team. So, let's explore where they are at, shall we? Here are six factors to consider when looking at this team:
Goaltending: Ever since Vezina winner Miikka Kiprusoff retired after the 2013 season the net has been a black hole for the Flames. They have tried many different things, and until this year nothing worked. They grabbed an entirely new duo this year in Mike Smith and Eddie Lack. Lack was a disaster and is already gone, but Smith has been brilliant. For the first time since Kiprusoff the team has a goalie who can steal games with consistency, and the impact is significant and obvious. And to replace Lack they brought up David Rittich from the AHL, and he has grabbed the backup role and locked it in a vice grip. The two have allowed two or fewer goals in the last five games. It's not hard to keep a winning streak going when your tenders are that stingy.
Top line: Sean Monahan centering Johnny Gaudreau and Michael Ferland was no worse than the second-best line in the NHL in November. They were brimming with confidence, and everything they touched went in. Then came December, and all of that confidence was gone. Production fell off a cliff. They are back at full steam now, though. It took just five games this month for the trio to surpass their combined point total for all of December. They could, and likely will, hit a rough patch again, but top teams have stellar top lines, and the Flames certainly qualify on that front.
Secondary contributions: When that top line was clicking in November, the issue was that they were largely forced to do it all alone. The team was getting decent production from their second line, but the third and fourth lines were just awful. That has changed in a significant way since. Two guys from the AHL have joined previously underperforming Sam Bennett on the third line and found real chemistry. And the fourth line has still changed regularly but is performing better. This was a team that was trying to get it done with one and a half lines, and it wasn't working. Now they have three and a half. Special teams were a horror show early on as well. The power play is still ugly, but the penalty kill is dramatically improved, and that has made a big difference.
Defense: The team invested heavily in acquiring Travis Hamonic from the Islanders in the offseason, and he rounded off a top four defenders - along with Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and the criminally-underappreciated Marc Giordano - that was thought to be among the very best in the league. Giordano and Hamilton have been strong together, but Brodie and Hamonic struggled horribly for much of the season. They seem to have turned a corner lately, though, and that's having an impact. There is still work to be done, but the trend definitely seems to be towards improvement defensively.
Road play: The team is a stellar 13-5-4 on the road, which is behind only league-leading Tampa Bay - who the Flames just beat up on in Tampa two games back. When you get points in 17 of 22 games away from home then you are going to have success. The problem, though, is that this team is strangely ineffective on their home ice. Their 12-11 record is just barely above .500, and no potential playoff team has anywhere close to a home winning performance as underwhelming. Home wins are supposed to be easier to come by - you get to sleep in your own bed, the crowd has your back. and the team gets the crucial last line change. It's easy to imagine, then, that this team will improve at home, then. But they have played tight so far and seem to be overthinking things at home. They need to turn a corner here or there are issues. They have won four of their last five to show some promise here in Calgary, but they had dropped four of five before that, so it's too soon to proclaim that anything has actually changed.
Betting performance: The team has performed exactly how you would think from their record. They have been profitable on the moneyline, with significant profits on the road and decent losses at home. They were not profitable until this recent winning streak, and they were underdogs in the last four games, so their grasp on profitability is not yet a strong one.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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