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NHL

Playing Against The Flames Sucks

Milan Lucic celebrates after scoring
Derek Leung/Getty Images

The first Red Wings game I’d been to in nearly two years, and the first live hockey game I’d seen at all since March of 2020, saw Detroit take on the Calgary Flames back on Oct. 21. It was a frickin’ disaster. I was so euphoric, so wide-eyed and excited to be back in a hockey arena (and so encouraged by the Wings’ hot start), and that feeling of joy couldn’t even last one lousy period. Elias Lindholm and Andrew Mangiapane, a pair of talented forwards still in their mid-20s, each took advantage of heavy traffic in the slot to score goals in the first. And even though the Red Wings managed 33 shots the rest of the game, Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom didn’t let a single one across. The Flames won 3-0. It was awful.

Do I feel better now, knowing that 10 other teams have since experienced what it’s like to lose to these Flames, who missed the playoffs altogether last year? Not really. But with each pair of points that the Flames add, the more impressive their sudden revitalization becomes. Calgary’s first 20 games of the year have seen them play an infuriatingly dominant brand of hockey in which they shoot the puck a bunch, don’t allow many shots on their own goal, and, when they do give up chances, stop them with world-class goaltending. With last night’s win against Chicago—their return to the Saddledome after a seven-game road trip—the Flames extended their current winning streak to four games and continued to assert themselves at the top of the Pacific Division, though this one was a bit closer than some of the others.

A very good fight kicked this one off, as Calgary’s Blake Coleman and Chicago’s Kirby Dach went at it just a minute into the game after Dach took exception to a check by the boards on one of his teammates. But it wasn’t long before the scoring followed. Dillon Dube, who’s not known for being much of a sniper, sped into the offensive zone and ghosted one through Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove from quite some distance to give the Flames a 1-0 lead. The teams traded goals in the remainder of the first, Chicago got a cheap one in the second to make it 2-2, and then in the third, before the empty netters rained down to give Calgary a 5-2 win, Matthew Tkachuk earned the game-winner with a very rude, very effective goal that he bounced off the skate of pricey Chicago defenseman Seth Jones. Too bad for him!

The real scary, memorable Flames performances, though, have been the shutouts—they have seven of them on the year already!—which are typically accompanied by plenty of goals from their own forwards. They just beat Boston, in Boston, by a score of 4-0, with a determined shorty by leading goal boy Mangiapane serving as a dagger to the heart in the third. They’ve also beaten down the Sabres 5-0, the Sens 4-0, the Rangers 6-0, and the Pennsylvania teams 4-0 each. There’s a solid chance of sheer brutality every time they step out onto the ice.

The guy who’s getting all the credit for this is Darryl Sutter, the two-time Stanley Cup–winning coach in Los Angeles who returned for a second stint in Calgary during March of last season. Sutter is famous (perhaps infamous) for implementing a highly physical, frustrating style of play that prioritizes keeping the puck in the least threatening areas of the ice, though his motivational methods didn’t win him many fans in the dressing room. But as he did for a while with the Kings, he’s getting the most out of what was always on paper a promising Flames roster.

It begins with Markstrom in net (though backup Dan Vladar also deserves credit for a 4-0-1 record). The 31-year-old Swede was decent during his seven-year tenure with the Canucks, but after a career-best year in 2019–20 he made the jump to Calgary on a six-year, $36 million deal. The expected regression arrived in his first season as a Flame, likely caused at least in part by a concussion he suffered in February, and perhaps the difficulty of adjusting to a new team and situation during peak COVID. But after a hard-working offseason where he got healthier and more comfortable, he’s playing like one of the best goalies in the league, putting up a .940 save percentage as he’s given up just 1.73 goals per game.

It helps, too, that the defense isn’t putting all that much pressure on him. Led by young talents like Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, Calgary’s blue-line is allowing just 29.4 shots per game—fifth best in the NHL. When the puck does get through, Markstrom typically has to make relatively fundamental stops. Among goalies with at least 300 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time (he has 718), Markstrom is 28th with just 7.34 “high-danger” shots faced per 60, according to Natural Stat Trick, and he’s stopping a higher percentage of them than anyone but Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky.

That backbone has unlocked more opportunities for what was once an underachieving forward group to run wild on the rush and in the offensive zone. After the team finished 20th in the league in goals last season, they’re up from 2.77 to 3.40 per game so far this year as Lindholm, Mangiapane, Tkachuk, and Johnny Gaudreau are all producing at or near career-high rates. (And their team shooting percentage, at 11th in the league, isn’t much of a red flag signaling future regression.) None of these guys are new around here, and Gaudreau specifically has been in Calgary for almost a decade at this point, so their suddenly stellar play is a shining example of a rising tide lifting all boats.

But if Sutter is being praised as the cause for so much of this success, he’s also kind of the elephant in the room. Over the course of an NHL head coaching career that began back in 1992, Sutter’s gained a fearsome reputation as an extremely competitive SOB with a terrifying temper who rides his players’ asses and has pissed off plenty of them. Daniel Carcillo, who had a brief stop with the Kings in 2013, told stories years later about Sutter berating and demeaning players and even yelling at a flight attendant after a loss. Justin Williams, perhaps the heart and soul of those Cup-winning Kings teams, has called the coach “in your face” and “condescending” and once told the tale of Sutter bringing assistant coaches into a room during an intermission and then sending them running because he began throwing aluminum chairs. Nobody in Los Angeles seemed especially upset when Sutter was shown the door at the end of 2016–17.

It’s somewhat ironic that, just as the NHL may be starting to reckon with its outdated attitudes around workplace abuse and harassment, an “old-school” coach who embodies the hyper-masculine old guard’s closely held values of toughness and intensity is experiencing the most unexpectedly dominant success of anyone in the league so far. No stories of Sutter’s dickishness or abuse have emerged from Calgary just yet, so perhaps he’s grasped that the old ways are not needed. These Flames are a thrilling testament to how far teamwork, intelligent play, and strong defense can carry a roster. But let’s hope playing for the Flames remains more fun than playing against them.