They will say that the Battle of Alberta might finally be back on, but some will see it as a Clash of Coaches.
As of Friday, the Calgary Flames, astonishingly, stood first over all in the Pacific Division. Equally astonishing, the once-woebegone Oilers were holding a wild card spot in the Western Conference. If they continue such play, it’s not inconceivable that the two teams could meet in the opening round of the playoffs. Few expected either team to get that far this year.
There is, of course, ample time for great falls from grace, something both teams experienced at different times in 2018 and responded by firing their coaches. No matter, heading into Christmas the two Alberta teams are the NHL’s feel-good story of the holiday season.
On Wednesday, the Flames completed a remarkable comeback against the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring twice in the dying seconds with their goal empty and an extra attacker on the ice. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau scored 35 seconds into overtime, allowing this rollicking game to end 6-5, as many great hockey games have ended, with a win for the home side.
The Oilers have had their own wild game, losing 5-4 in overtime on Thursday to the Winnipeg Jets, but low-scoring victories have been more the order since Edmonton fired head coach Todd McLellan and talked Ken Hitchcock out of retirement. Under Hitchcock’s obsessive defence systems, the Oilers have picked up 18 of a possible 24 points over 12 games, holding the other teams to two goals or fewer in seven of those matches. One of those tight victories was Sunday in Edmonton, when the Oilers defeated the Flames 1-0 on a goal by (who else?) Connor McDavid.
Calgary also turned to a new coach this year following a late-season collapse in which the Flames won just seven times in the final 24 games, thereby missing the playoffs for the third time in five seasons. General manager Brad Treliving fired coach Glen Gulutzan and brought in Bill Peters – just one of multiple Treliving moves over the summer that appears to have paid off.
Treliving’s summer was exceptionally busy. He fired and hired a head coach. He changed the coaching staff by bringing in Geoff Ward to handle the power play and promoted his minor-league coach, Ryan Huska, to handle the defence. He changed nearly a third of the roster. He made a major trade with Peters’s previous team, the Carolina Hurricanes, that send Dougie Hamilton, Adam Fox and Micheal Ferland to Raleigh in exchange for forward Elias Lindholm and defenceman Noah Hanifin. He hired several free agents, including James (The Real Deal) Neal, a dependable 20-goal-plus scorer in previous years. Treliving promptly signed Neal to a better “real deal” of US$28.75-million over five years.
It is only the Neal signing that hasn’t worked out well for the Flames. With only six points on three goals and three assists, the 31-year-old Neal is out of synch with a young team that plays with all the speed and aggression that Peters promised on arrival.
“We needed kind of a kick in the butt,” Flames forward Matt Tkachuk told Calgary media. “We need to realize how bad we were and how that’s not acceptable.”
The massive changes, Tkachuk said “sparks every player that was here before.” Certainly, the youthful Flames play as though someone has set a fire under them. Gaudreau, 25, is fifth in league scoring with 42 points in 32 games, one point back of Edmonton’s young star, McDavid. Sean Monahan, 24, has 38 points, Tkachuk, who turned 21 this week and has been made an assistant captain, has 37 points. The newly acquired Lindholm, just turned 24, has 32 points, which matches the total for 35-year-old Mark Giordano, the team’s captain and No. 1 defenceman.
Their season did not get off to a great start. Off to China for preseason games against the Boston Bruins, the Flames’ equipment got held up in customs and they had to cancel practice. In their season opener, they were crushed 5-2 by the Vancouver Canucks, marking the 10th year in a row that the Flames lost their opener. If this was seen as a harbinger of same-old, same-old, it was a poor predictor.
Slowly things began to change for the better. The youngsters began scoring and the goaltending, dreadful in the final months of last season, came around. Mike Smith, who will turn 36 in March, was considered by many to be at the end of his career, but has a respectable 11-7-1 record this season. David Rittich, who replaced Smith for the third period against the Flyers, picked up another win in the amazing comeback and now stands at 9-3-1 for the season. Not bad for a backup goaltender who wasn’t even a lock for the second net job when the season began.
With hopes higher than they have been for years around the Flames, it’s worth noting that 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the franchise’s only Stanley Cup victory.
No one can predict who the ultimate champion will be, but closing in on Christmas it certainly appears that the Calgary Flames will return to the playoffs and last year’s dismal finish will fade in memory.
As Tkachuk said to the Calgary media, “We don’t ever want to feel that again.”