Well, Well, Well, Look Who’s Come Crawling Back (It’s The Calgary Flames)
12:37 PM EST on January 17, 2024
Around this time two years ago, the Flames looked like one of the best-equipped teams to win the Stanley Cup. They didn't, of course, and the outcomes have only gotten worse from there. The superline that accounted for so much of their scoring fell apart, with Johnny Gaudreau leaving for Columbus and Matthew Tkachuk moving to Florida, then head coach Darryl Sutter seemed to burn out his players in 2022–23. Game after game, they held the puck more and generated more chances, but they lacked that extra—motivation? Poise? Luck?—to translate good hockey into winning hockey. Sutter was shown the door after the team won 12 fewer games and missed the playoffs. GM Brad Treliving went to Toronto. Now the responsibility belongs to Craig Conroy up high and Ryan Huska on the bench—both internal promotions who've never had the keys to an NHL team before this venture.
The first impressions were bad. The Flames, reeling from so much turnover, were handily beaten again and again in the season's first month, while their lines were littered with ghosts. Jonathan Huberdeau, the headline return for Tkachuk, has failed to be the kind of playmaker that greased every wheel in Miami. Elias Lindholm, the third member of that superline, appears lost and lonely without his buds. Andrew Mangiapane's 35-goal breakout is looking like a mirage. And Nazem Kadri, the signing meant to fill Gaudreau's hole, is more Robin than Batman.
But the months since that terrible start have told a more appealing story—one in which the Flames' less likely heroes are stepping up at the right times to provide a boost to their playoff hopes. Now, with the trade deadline on the horizon, and players like Lindholm or ice-time leader Noah Hanifin prepping for free agency, the Flames are facing that classic buy-or-sell conundrum. The way they've been playing lately, it's getting harder to argue that they should just give up on the season.
The ... thing ... about ... the ... hockey ... game ... that ... took ... place ... on ... Tuesday ... night ... is ... that ... it ... started ... very ... very ... very ... slowly. But the Coyotes finally jumped on the board midway through the second, when Sean Durzi fired a big slapper that evaded back-up goalie Dan Vladar's glove. This was a real opponent for the Flames, by the way! The Coyotes boast a better record, are scrapping to get into a playoff position, and were trying to follow up a 6-0 mugging of the Wild.
There was a little more action after that first goal horn, but both netminders did their jobs until the third, when some really beautiful, aggressive offensive motion as Calgary recovered from a penalty kill doubled the Yotes' lead (and provided a great example of how Durzi can be the engine for this team from the rear).
The late-stage Sutter Flames weren't able to close out games that they were supposed to win, let alone come back from multi-goal deficits. But as Vladar anchored them the rest of the way, the skaters figured things out. First Blake Coleman, part of the glue of the Lightning when they won two straight Cups, continued what's become the scoring run of his life when he tapped in his 20th from a pass behind the net. Then it was Martin Pospisil—the rookie fourth-round pick from 2018 who's finally made it to the NHL—receiving a cross-ice pass on a break, collapsing the Arizona defense with a fierce swoop to the net, and setting up Kadri for the score.
Overtime saw a Flames power play off a too many men penalty, but it required patience. In four-on-three Calgary made their passes in the offensive zone, but Connor Ingram was sharp in goal and stymied several opportunities. In the last handful of seconds, it took a hustle play from Yegor Sharangovich to break through: a burst of speed to keep the puck in the zone, and an unimpeded skate to the circle, where he had time to aim and fire.
"A little bit of relief and a little bit of elation," Coleman said of his feelings upon seeing that goal.
Heroic Yegor is the kind of guy who represents the Flames as they are now. An undeniably talented young forward with a good work ethic, he raised hopes as a Devil but stalled out in his development at age 24, stepping backward as the team leaped up the standings and more favored youngsters ate into his role. This offseason, Jersey dealt him to Calgary for an enticing win-now piece in Tyler Toffoli. Nobody was especially whelmed to get Yegor in return, but already he's just six goals from his career high of 24, and he's become a crucial part of this offense as other assets have faded away, playing disciplined hockey while contributing more points than all but Coleman and Kadri.
It's not exactly a good thing that the Flames are relying so heavily on a guy like Yegor Sharangovich, as opposed to a Tkachuk or a Gaudreau, as they fight to stay relevant. But even though on paper there are plenty of ways that this Calgary team is even worse than the one that took the ice last season, there is still a freshness to this group—a will to win, we could even call it—that makes them far less of a disappointment. They brought it to Vegas early in their last game, smothered the Coyotes before that, and roared back against Ottawa to start this little streak. Since Christmas they haven't dropped a game by more than one goal, and if you take out the meandering start to this season, the Flames' record is 19-11-4: fifth-best in the West over that span. It may not be anything like what giddy fans imagined two years ago, but under the circumstances it's as good as it gets.
More interesting still, their next two challenges are at home versus the Leafs, who choke up leads like cats do hairballs, and then the Oilers, the league's scariest group of guys. Either would provide a healthy ego boost if the Flames can in fact stay hot. "Every single game is magnified for us," Kadri said last night. "We're trying to show that desperation early, and we're coming together, rallying as a team, and that's a great sign."
Would you rather be a talented team failing to play to its potential or a suboptimal roster squeezing everything out of its hungry reinforcements? Calgary doesn't have a choice, but this trajectory feels a lot more comfortable.