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What has enabled the Calgary Flames to start playing their best hockey of the season?

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Raz Devraj
1 month ago
It’s interesting to see what a few days off and a blockbuster trade can do for a team. Before the All-Star break, the Calgary Flames went through a rough six-game homestand going 2-4-0 and losing two important “four-point” games to the St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers. That homestand also featured a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and a disappointing 1-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks that resulted solely from Jacob Markstrom’s excellence. 
Another significant event happened before the festivities kicked off in Toronto. Elias Lindholm who spent five and a half years with the Flames was finally moving on with the Vancouver Canucks. In return for Lindholm, the Flames acquired a boatload of pieces. While it may have been quantity over quality in terms of judging how good the return was, there was one significant piece attached to it that Flames fans would get to see on the ice right away. 
Andrei Kuzmenko, the 28-year-old undrafted Russian who put up 39 goals last year in his rookie season with the Canucks was headed to Cowtown. With Kuzmenko being in Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet’s doghouse for a majority of the season, constantly wondering if he was going to be a healthy scratch and in need of a fresh start, it was no surprise he was convinced to waive his no-trade clause to come to Calgary. 
Since Kuzmenko has arrived and Lindholm has departed it seems as if this Flames team has found a new sense of energy and purpose in the way they are playing. It wasn’t just Kuzmenko who brought a spark to the locker room, but Jakob Pelletier also returned from injury (unfortunately he was injured again Monday night against the Rangers), Oliver Kylington was just getting back into the swing of things after only playing two games before the break, and former Golden Knights defensemen Brayden Pachal was picked up on waivers. There was new life and new beginnings brought into the dressing room and they did nothing but use all of the positive vibes to start racking up points.
Coming out of the All-Star break the Flames have played four games going 3-1-0 and in doing so, handing losses to the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, and New York Islanders all on the road. All three of these clubs currently sit higher than the Flames in the standings. 
 
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why this team has been able to play their best hockey of the season so far. 

Jacob Markstrom’s continued dominance

It seems as if we are always talking about Markstrom, and for good reason too. He has been playing out of his mind this year posting a .916 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average. There are only three goalies in the entire league who have played more games than him and have a higher save percentage and a lower goals-against average. Those goaltenders are Connor Hellebuyck, Joey Daccord, and Thatcher Demko. Being in the same conversation as Hellebuyck and Demko this season speaks for itself. 
 
Markstrom is giving the Flames a chance to win every night and the team knows they can count on him. There have been times when this team has had no business either winning the game or being in the game at all and I can think of three performances off the top of my head where he stole the game: The first was the home opener against the Winnipeg Jets, the second being the 1-0 win against the Blackhawks just before the break, and most recently Monday night against the New York Rangers where it could have easily gotten out of hand in the first period.
Regardless of the future trajectory of this team and some wanting them to tank and lay off the gas, it’s going to be impossible for the Flames to finish that low with the way Markstrom continues to show up every night. 

Jonathan Huberdeau awakened

There haven’t been too many positive things to say about Huberdeau’s time as a Flame but as of late it seems as if he has finally found his groove. In the past 17 games, Huberdeau has put up 16 points, 12 of them being assists which proves that he is playing to his strengths as a playmaker. 
Huberdeau has slowly been improving in the point production department for just over a month now but what’s been really great to see is his recent success playing alongside Kuzmenko, and Yegor Sharangovich at centre as opposed to Lindholm. Since Huberdeau became a Flame it was clear that whether he played with Lindholm or Nazem Kadri nothing was really clicking. 
In just the past four games it has been apparent that there is some chemistry between Huberdeau and Kuzmenko already. Theoretically, it makes sense. A playmaker who specializes in finding open areas to put the puck in as well as has a history of connecting on ridiculous passes and a pure goal scorer with a wicked shot who knows how to get open in front of and around the net. On paper that is the perfect combination and we saw a glimpse of what could possibly be a lethal combination on Kuzmenko’s first goal as a Flame against the Bruins. 

Confidence building for rookies

I think it’s safe to say that both Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil have been great in their own ways since being called up early on in the season. What’s been impressive and how they have shown improvement is the confidence they have both gained and the identities they are building for themselves.
For Zary, it’s been great to see just how comfortable he has gotten with the puck on his stick. The confidence is visible in the patience he has when making a play. There are not a lot of radical decisions being made with the puck and he has been getting better and better at being able to hold onto the puck until he can make that safe pass, make that extra move, drive to the net, or dump the puck in. 
Pospisil has created a unique identity for himself as well but not in the same way as Zary. He is making an impact on the ice by being that aggressive pest and throwing his weight around. Less than 40 games into his NHL career and he already has the guts to go after and bother guys like Brad Marchand and Artemi Panarin. He has brought that Matthew Tkachuk/Micheal Ferland vibe back into this roster in terms of his ability to irritate players on the opposition. 
This past week has been the most positive it has been all season for the Flames and if they continue their winning ways it’s going to be a very interesting trade deadline. Tough times are ahead for GM Craig Conroy if this team finds themselves in a playoff spot because as we know they have two players whose contracts are about to expire at the end of this season that you would love to have in the playoffs, and based on how contract extensions have gone with both players it is very possible that Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev decide to walk, and you can guarantee that Conroy will not run the risk of losing both for nothing and have a repeat of the Johnny Gaudreau situation.

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