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Matthew Tkachuk celebrates after scoring against the St. Louis Blues during a game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Dec. 22, 2018 in Calgary.

DEREK LEUNG/Getty Images

If there is one thing you can say for sure about the Calgary Flames this season, it’s that no one saw them coming.

They looked decent enough, with a shot at the NHL playoffs. But there were some holes up front, and goaltender Mike Smith wasn’t getting any younger or better. That is why the Flames faded so badly a year ago after going into the all-star break in nearly the same spot they are in now, leading not only the Pacific Division but the Western Conference with a 33-13-5 record and 71 points.

However, this is not last year’s team, which went into the 2018 break in position to challenge for the Pacific title but proved to have no staying power. By the end of the season, the Flames slipped to 11th place in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs.

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This time around, though, the Flames have passed the Winnipeg Jets as Canada’s top Stanley Cup contender, with no sign they are about to pull the chute down the stretch. Chief among the difference-makers is the team’s top line of centre Sean Monahan and wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, and the top four defencemen, led by Mark Giordano, who was just voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association as the NHL’s best defenceman over the first half of the season.

But most NHL-watchers are well aware of those guys. No team takes a big step forward without help from unexpected quarters and for the Flames that came from goaltender David Rittich. The 26-year-old Czech has kicked around the Flames organization since 2016 when he was signed as an undrafted free agent, and finally landed the backup job to Smith last season.

When Smith, 36, tumbled out of the gate this season and did not get any better, it looked as though general manager Brad Treliving would be casting around for a goaltender. But Rittich stepped up, so much so that he earned the moniker Big Save Dave, took Smith’s job and now has a 19-4-4 record, a 2.47 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.

Rittich’s path to the top job was made easier by the Flames’ outstanding group of top four defencemen. With Giordano and T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic and Noah Hanifin as their top two pairs, the Flames can match up with just about any team in the league.

Giordano already has 52 points in 49 games and could well win his first James Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman at the age of 35.

Along with Giordano, the Flames have four other players with more than 50 points – Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk. No wonder the team’s goal-differential is an impressive plus-45, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Flames head coach Bill Peters came over from the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer and struck gold early in the season when he put the ex-Cane Lindholm on the right side with Gaudreau and Monahan. With all three of them among the top 15 in points, it’s an easy argument that they are currently the best line in the NHL.

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Peters recently told Sportsnet the line clicks because each player has skills that complement the others. All three have experience at centre, and one big advantage is that they can alternate on faceoffs, which eases the pressure on Monahan, who had wrist surgery in the off-season.​

The big surprise for Peters, who had only coached in the Eastern Conference before coming to Calgary, was Gaudreau, now fourth in points in the NHL with 73.

“I hadn’t seen him enough. I had no idea,” Peters said. “I knew he was a good player. I knew he was dynamic but I didn’t know he was this creative and had the ability to hold on to pucks, let plays develop.

“And I don’t think anyone, if you haven’t played with him or coached him, understands how competitive this guy is.”

The biggest liability for the Flames is their third and fourth lines, considered by many observers to be among the weakest bottom six in the league. James Neal, signed as a free agent to add scoring to the top six forwards, has just five goals and 12 points and is playing his way to the fourth line and maybe the press box.

But the saving grace is the second line. With Mikael Backlund centring the hard-nosed Tkachuk (57 points) and Michael Frolik, who played his way out of Peters’s doghouse, the Flames have a unit that can score almost at the same pace as the top line.

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Finally, another reason the Flames probably won’t fade like last season’s team is the quality of the opposition. The rest of the Pacific Division simply doesn’t scare anyone. The San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights are the best of the bunch, but the Sharks are an aging group and the Golden Knights do not have enough scoring power to complement goaltender Marc-André Fleury’s still-fine work.

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