Optimism, stress, panic, and relief, those in a nutshell have been the emotions Calgary Flames fans have been feeling since the puck dropped on the NHL season on October 12 in Edmonton.
Mere weeks after the Flames endured a slump which included dropping six of seven and fans calling for the head of new head coach Glen Gulutzan, the team has turned things around with six wins in their last eight games including a recent four-game winning streak.
Just weeks ago on this very website, I was looking at reasons for why the early part of the Flames season was spiralling out of control.
It’s still far too early to say if Calgary has ‘turned the corner’ just 29 games into the 2016-17 season, but things are looking up for the Flames as they get ready to conclude their southern road trip in Arizona on Thursday.
There are plenty of reasons why the Flames have been able to put together some consistent hockey, but many of the improvements stem from their own end of the ice.
Much has been made about the rise of Chad Johnson from career backup to anointed starter for the Calgary Flames, but there’s a good reason for the increased attention.
Since taking over from Brian Elliott on November 15 against the Minnesota Wild, Johnson has posted a ridiculous 9-2 record with a 1.63 goals against, .944 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Nevermind providing a stabilizing force between the pipes, the former Brooks Bandit has stolen games for Calgary over the past three weeks and has established himself as one of the best netminders statistically this year.
Although still considered by many to still be a backup goalie in the NHL, Johnson has put himself in the conversation as one of the most reliable goaltenders in the entire league.
As noted with @SNRyanPinder, SV% since Nov 1, 2015:
1. Price, .940 (21 starts)
2. Murray, .930 (22 starts)
3. Chad Johnson, .928 (47 starts)
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) December 6, 2016
Just looking at those numbers, Johnson has the best save percentage of any goalie over the last 13 months that has played over 25 games. That is a huge accomplishment for a guy who was brought into Calgary to give Elliott a night off here and there.
Although the season is still quite young, it will be interesting to see what the Flames plans in goal moving forward will be with both Elliott and Johnson unrestricted free agents, and one will need to be made available for the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft.
For now though, the Flames seem perfectly content to ride the hot hand before Johnson gives them other reasons to consider.
Bluntly speaking, the Flames special teams were abysmal to start the season ranking last in power play and ahead of only the Chicago Blackhawks with a man in the box.
A combination of more trust between the pipes with Johnson and getting used to the systems that Gulutzan employs, Calgary has drastically changed their fortunes away from 5-on-5 action over the last few weeks.
The Flames penalty kill has jumped up only a few spots to 26th overall in the NHL, but possess the third best percentage (93.1%) since that fateful game against Minnesota. Since then only six PP goals have beaten the Flames, with three of those coming against the Buffalo Sabres on November 21.
And if you thought the penalty kill has improved, wait until you hear about Calgary’s man advantage.
Red-hot with the best power play percentage in the NHL over the last three weeks, the Flames have scored eight times with the extra skater since November 15. That serves as a huge markup for the team, as they had only lit the lamp five times on the PP in the previous 16 games combined.
Recently the power play has been even better, with Calgary going 4-for-10 with the man advantage over their last three games against Minnesota, Dallas, and Anaheim.
With all the hype currently surrounding Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the highest drafted player in Flames history.
Starting off the season with a respectable 12 points in 27 games, Bennett was continuing to provide some valuable depth scoring for the Flames on the wing the last few weeks with Matt Stajan and Alex Chiasson.
Looking to give his lineup a shock to the system, Gulutzan elected to move Bennett back to centre ahead of Calgary’s game against Anaheim on Sunday.
Sandwiched between Gaudreau and Chiasson, Bennett exploded for a season-high three points (one goal, two assists) in Calgary’s 8-3 drubbing of the Ducks.
Although he didn’t post any points in the Flames’ 2-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, Bennett still was able to hold his own at the centre position and racked up 15:39 of ice time in the win.
Still getting used to taking faceoffs at the NHL level, Bennett struggled on the dot against the Ducks and Stars, but did establish some solid experience going up against all-stars such as Ryan Getzlaf and Tyler Seguin.
Sam Bennett's recorded his third career 3-point game. Since 1986-87, only Robert Reichel (7) has had more with the #Flames before turning 21
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) December 5, 2016
Although he’s still very young at just 20-years-old, Bennett is beginning to show the offensive flare the Flames saw to draft him fourth overall in 2014.
And, we’ll see if that scoring spark will begin to burn brighter down the middle of the ice.