As I write this, the Calgary Flames sit fourth overall in the National Hockey League (with a 8-4-2 record). If I had written that after, say, the first day of the season or the first week of the season, that’d be one thing.
But it’s a month in and 17% of the schedule has whooshed by, so suffice it to say everyone following the team is some combination of shocked and impressed. The odds-makers set the over/under for Calgary points at 75 points; they need to go 28-40-0 (or thereabouts) to hit that mark. Granted, there are 68 games remaining, but it seems rather unlikely that if the bounces correct themselves, they correct that severely (and completely).
Tonight the Flames face the Tampa Bay Lightning (8-3-1) at the newly-renamed Amalie Arena (5:30pm MT; Sportsnet Flames and Sportsnet 960 The Fan). It’s an interesting game for a few reasons. The Flames are a strong road team right now and have won three straight. The Lightning are a strong home team right now and have won three straight.
The team didn’t practice yesterday, taking a day off after a big come-from-behind overtime win in Washington against the Capitals. The Flames are feeling pretty good about themselves and aren’t expected to make any major changes to the line-up.
Jonas Hiller gets the start – his fifth straight. He’s got a 6-2-1 record, a 1.96 goals against average and a .935 save percentage (.948 at even-strength). Unless he absolutely stinks up the joint, it’s smart money to roll with him for the time being.
Internally, the Flames pointed to the melee in Vancouver on January 18 as a turning point for the season. From that point to the end of the 2013-14 season, the club had 48.19 CorsiFor% (8th worst in the NHL) and 101.25 PDO (7th best in the NHL). So far this season? 44.82 CorsiFor% (3rd worst in the NHL) and 103.21 PDO (2nd best in the NHL).
In short: if you wanted to make the argument that the things that are making Calgary successful this season are the same things that made them successful post-Vancouver last year, you’re probably not wrong. The big difference is they’re a bit worse possession-wise (goodbye Mike Cammalleri) and a bit better in terms of their PDO (hello Jonas Hiller).
In other news, Josh Jooris gets promoted to the top line and David Jones get dumped down. Ladislav Smid is reportedly dealing with some manner of (minor) ailment, so we get the season debut of the Diaz/Engelland pairing.
In a strange coincidence, Tampa Bay has been off since November 1, when they too beat the Washington Capitals 4-3. Since they met the Flames in Calgary, the Lightning have gone 4-1-0. If they score more than two goals, they tend to win lately.
Sounds like Ben Bishop gets the start. He’s 7-1-1 with a 2.45 goals against average and a .912 save percentage (and a .908 even-strength percentage).
The Bolts are still missing key pieces like Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman, but they are also largely the same group that beat the Flames 2-1 in overtime awhile back, except they’re slightly healthier (Ryan Callahan’s back) and more rested. Not a lot of plugs or passengers on that club.
SUM IT UP
We’ve got an interesting road battle ahead of us tonight. There’s obviously a lot of respect between Calgary and Tampa – but also an underlying historical animosity, particularly since the Flames feel they let points slip away back in Calgary when they last played. Expect the intensity to get ratcheted up a bit if the game is as close and tight-checking as we experienced last time.