It’s been a long time since Calgary Flames fans have felt this way, cautious optimism after a fiery start to the season that has vaulted them among the NHL’s best.
But combined with feeling of hope, there’s a sense among Flames fans that at any moment this magical season so far could all come crashing down.
A feeling that is not unfamiliar as previous years of disappointment has left supporters weary about sustainable success.
Winning the Northwest Division in 2006 only to see the Flames knocked out in the first round of playoffs. Calgary pulling third period comebacks out of midair in 2015 to make the postseason, with their luck running out in a five-game second round series against Anaheim.
Even last year, with injuries and an air of apathy down the stretch drive of the season seeing the team fall further and further out of the playoff picture.
But this season is different.
Like in 2015, the wins are coming this season but it’s more clinical and sustainable process with Calgary getting depth scoring and quality goaltending, for the most part, when they need it.
Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano are having the best seasons of their career, T.J. Brodie has rediscovered his game on the blueline, and David Rittich is giving Flames fans flashbacks of another European netminder who burst onto the scene at just the right time.
No, there’s a different feeling surrounding this year’s Flames team and it could be enough to erase past seasons of mediocrity and disappointment.
In hockey circles, American Thanksgiving is often the benchmark that begins to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
If that’s the case, the Flames should be feeling very comfortable about their playoff odds a few weeks into the new year.
Through the first 48 games of the 2018-19 campaign, Calgary sits second in the entire NHL with a 30-13-5 record and were the second-fastest team in the league to hit the 30-win plateau.
The Flames are on pace for 51 wins and 111 points, which would be just the second season with over 50 wins and 110 points in the franchise’s 38-year history.
Calgary hammers Arizona 7-1 for their 30th win of the season (30-13-4).
47 games in, that’s tied for the fastest to 30 wins in franchise history with the 1988-89 edition of the team (30-10-7). #Flames
— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) January 14, 2019
Of course, the only other season in which both of those benchmarks were reached was in 1988-89, the lone spring in which Calgary lifted the Stanley Cup.
With a 16-point game separating the top ranked Flames and the fourth place Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division, it’s a fair bet to say Calgary will be hitting the ice when the playoffs begin in the second week of April.
Likely to play either the San Jose Sharks or Vegas Golden Knights at some point in the first two rounds, it will be a tall task to get out of the Pacific.
But if that happens, it’s not unfathomable to think Calgary could get on a roll especially considering they’re in prime position to clinch home ice with just three months until playoffs.
For all the great players the Flames have turned out over the years, none have taken home the Hart Trophy for NHL MVP or the James Norris Memorial Trophy for top defender.
Through the first half of the season, two Flames have put themselves in contention for these awards and have been the two biggest reasons why Calgary sits atop the Western Conference.
Gaudreau and Giordano have elevated their games to elite status, which has been especially apparent over the last few weeks.
Flanking Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm on one of the league’s most effective top lines, Gaudreau has found a new gear to his game with 28 goals and 71 points through 48 contests.
Fastest to 70 Points in a Season in #Flames History:
Kent Nilsson (1980-81) – 46 GP
Bob MacMillan (1978-79) – 47 GP
Johnny Gaudreau (2018-19) – 48 GP
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) January 17, 2019
On pace for 48 goals and 121 points, Gaudreau is expected to shatter his career highs in both categories over the coming weeks and has entered the Hart Trophy conversation.
While he still sits second to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov in league scoring, the 25-year-old could become Calgary’s first finalist for MVP since Miikka Kiprusoff in 2006.
As for Giordano, he continues to prove age is just a number with his best offensive numbers of his 13-year NHL career.
Rejuvenating Calgary’s defensive core, the 35-year-old Giordano trails only San Jose’s Brent Burns in scoring by a defenceman with 48 points in 46 games.
#Flames captain Mark Giordano is the first defenceman this season to be saluted as the NHL's first star of the week.
— Wes Gilbertson (@WesGilbertson) January 14, 2019
Needing just six points to tie his career-high of 56 points, Giordano is on pace for 83 points which would the most by a Flames defender since Al MacInnis’ absurd 103-point campaign in the early 1990’s.
While Calgary has rocketed up the NHL standings over the last few months, there is a chance a late season collapse could happen.
But as the year goes along, that feels less and less likely as the Flames finally seem to have figured out how to play sustained hockey over an 82-game season.
Holding the NHL’s second best goal differential at a plus 39 rating, Calgary has been gifted with a combination of timely scoring and solid goaltending from Rittich this year.
Special teams have also improved greatly since the Flames cleaned house with their coaching staff in the off-season, sitting top 10 in power play percentage and leading the NHL with 14 shorthanded goals.
— Sportsnet 960 (@Sportsnet960) January 8, 2019
That’s not to say the Flames play has been perfect, especially recently. Weeks of winning by the skin of their teeth came to a head on Wednesday night in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
But all that said, the Flames are a lock for the playoffs and likely will earn one of the top seeds in the Western Conference.
As for being called Stanley Cup contenders?
It’s a term that has some fans running for the hills with the wave of expectations associated, but I wouldn’t know what else to call it.