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Behind Enemy Lines: Calgary Flames flying high

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On the verge of a playoff berth, the Flames visit Raleigh for the only time this season.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Florida Panthers Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The Calgary Flames have grown into a legitimate playoff contender in the Western Conference on the power of a true breakout season from Mikael Backlund and a sensational rookie campaign from 19-year-old American Matthew Tkachuk. Combining the performances of Backlund and Tkachuk with the usual solid play from Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and defensemen Dougie Hamilton and captain Mark Giordano, the Flames have been able to ice a fairly solid team in front of netminders Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott.

With all of the good players, however, the Flames likely owe a good amount of their contention in the Western Conference to parity within the conference and a portion to good, old-fashioned luck. The Flames have attained 68 points, good for fourth in the Pacific Division and the first wild card spot out west. They have managed this with while somehow being outscored by 10 goals on the season.

Defensively, they are 20th in the league in goals allowed, as they have yielded 176 goals in 62 games. While it is not uncommon for teams to contend with a goal differential which is less than awe-inspiring, it typically leads many in the hockey analytics community to feel that the team is dramatically over-achieving.

For Calgary, one of the biggest moves of this past offseason was the acquisition of goalie Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues. After a disastrous 2015-2016 season saw the Flames receive the leagues worst work in net from the likes of Karri Ramo, Jonas Hiller and others, addressing goaltending was high on the Flames list. Many felt adding Elliott would pay huge dividends, while very few thought too much of the teams signing of Chad Johnson to, presumably, serve as Elliott’s backup.

However, Johnson, a Calgary native, has proven to be the most steady backstop for this team. The struggles of Elliott include an .896 save percentage and 2.81 goals against average in 29 starts. Johnson, by comparison, has provided a .913 save percentage and a 2.54 GAA in 33 starts. The time share in net has been able to continue because of the relative comfort the Flames have in terms of holding a playoff spot. As the season winds down, expect the Flames to try and zero in on a number one guy as the playoffs approach.

Offensively, the Flames have been led in scoring not by Monahan and Gaudreau, perhaps the two best known Flames around the league, but by Backlund and Tkachuk. Backlund has produced 44 points in 62 games, just three points off his career high of 47 from a season ago. Tkachuk, the son of retired NHL standout Keith Tkachuk, has provided a spark of speed, enthusiasm and playmaking that did not exist beyond the top-line in Calgary a season ago. His 30 assists lead the team, and he is surely a player that will continue to evolve as a goal scorer himself as he grows in the NHL.

As you can imagine, the ability for the Flames to hold on to leads and win close games has been a huge part of their ability to hold a playoff spot currently with a minus-10 goal differential. When leading after two periods, the Flames are an incredible 20-0-4 on the season. The Flames also hold a 13-6 record in one-goal games. For the Hurricanes today, getting out on top is a key. One other important aspect for today’s game to note is that the Flames are playing the final game of a five-game road trip. With the earlier start, it is important for the Canes to start “on-time” today, as the Flames could understandably be dragging a bit as they conclude their trip.

What to Watch For

  • Who will be in net today for the Flames? Elliott and Johnson have continued their time share, and with this game not part of a back-to-back, it is anyone’s guess who will be in net.
  • The last time the Canes played the Flames in October, the Flames power play was off to an atrocious start to the season (the Flames proceeded to go 0 for 6 on the man advantage in the game in Calgary). Since then, the Flames power play has become a bit of a weapon as they are currently 13th in the league at 19.7%. The Canes’ penalty kill must be up to the task again today.
  • Look for the Canes to push the minutes of their top two defensive pairings against the top two lines for the Flames. With two pairings which the Canes certainly feel are much stronger than their current third pairing, expect big minutes to come from Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin.