Calgary Special Teams Clicking on All Cylinders Right Now

For the Calgary Flames, it was more of the same in Monday night’s 4-2 win over Arizona.

More Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan (assist apiece) getting on the scoresheet. More Matthew Tkachuk (two assists) providing the Flames with spark out of the vast fountain of youth that has bestowed the hockey world. More shutdown defense (26:33 for T.J. Brodie, 25:16 for Mark Giordano, 21 shots allowed in 43:50 of five-on-five play).

But above all else, it was a another day at the office for the Flames special teams units, the powerplay tacking on three man-advantage goals while the penalty kill stymied all five chances the Coyotes had.

The Flames have now scored a powerplay goal in eight straight games, the longest streak since December 2005. A powerplay goal on Tuesday night in San Jose will give Calgary its first nine-game streak since March and April 2002. Calgary is clicking at a 39.4 percent rate (13-for-33) on the powerplay over the last eight games. They had just eight in 79 attempts prior, with a league-worst 10.1 success rate.

The biggest key for the Flames has been the return of Gaudreau, who splits duties with Sam Bennett on the left point. Gaudreau returned from a fractured finger on December 4. Six of his 11 points in seven games following his return have come on the powerplay.

Along with Gaudreau and Bennett, Brodie and Giordano have been the guys working the right point and the blue line. Much of the offense is generated from the left point, where the puck is directed down low, where combinations consisting largely of Monahan, Dougie Hamilton, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, and Alex Chaisson swarm the net-front.

Meanwhile, the penalty kill has allowed just four goals this month, an 86.2 percent success rate that is tied for 11th in the league. The Flames haven’t given up a powerplay goal on the road since November 27. Calgary has killed off 27 of 28 penalties since allowing Buffalo to score three man-advantage goals on November 21.

Calgary has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past month, with a 9-3-1 record in 13 games going back to November 23. Its only losses in December have come to Stanley Cup hopeful Tampa Bay and white-hot Columbus.

The Flames have climbed into the first Wildcard spot in the Western Conference as a result. Calgary’s 36 points is two ahead of eighth-place Los Angeles and three more than first-team-out Winnipeg. This comes after the Flames were on the outside looking in a month ago. Its staggering rate of success on special teams have been a big part of that turnaround.

 

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Thoughts Are My Own: Night of Statement Wins

Thoughts after a rare Monday night of games and big wins.

*Start with the New York Rangers. Going into Pittsburgh’s building and coming out with a 5-2 win. Coming off a second loss in a row, losing Mika Zibanejad, it was all Blueshirts after a sluggish first period. We’ll see if they can keep it up.

*Who had Edmonton beating Chicago, 5-0? I’m sure even fewer had the Blackhawks being held to just three shots in the third period.

*Nice win by Nashville, topping Tampa Bay at home. The Predators are 6-2-2 in their last 10.

*Matt Tkachuk with a goal and assist while playing 15:52 in the Flames 4-2 loss to Buffalo. That’s his second multi-point game in the NHL and now has five goals and eight points in 17 games. He’s been one of Calgary’s few bright spots.

*Jake Guentzel the latest kid to splash on the scene in what has been the Year of the Kids so far in 2016. The young Penguin scored on his first career shot 1:02 into Monday’s game against the Rangers in Pittsburgh, the first of two first period goals for Guentzel in the 5-2 loss. A third round pick by the Pens in 2013, the 22-year-old forward had been a force at AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, with 17 points in 16 games this season. He had 14 points in 10 playoff games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season after he went pro following his junior season at Nebraska-Omaha, where he led the Mavericks to a Frozen Four appearance in 2015 as a sophomore.

*Latest on the Craig Cunningham front. Nothing new but Bob McKenzie had a great piece on Cunningham, his journey to the NHL, and the relationship he holds with his mother, his lifelong friends, and his current peers. McKenzie writes Cunningham is ‘literally battling for his life.’

Game to Watch Tuesday Night

St. Louis at Boston: David Backes faces the team he captained for five years before leaving the Blues for a five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins in free agency this past summer.

Hat Trick Pick

Victor Rask: The Hurricanes leading scorer has four goals in his last five games, and eight overall this season.

Bruins Face Canadiens for First Time, Scott Stevens Returns to New Jersey, Brian Elliot Faces Blues

Quite a bit to watch on Saturday night as 12 NHL games are being played, including the first game between Boston and Montreal, Flames goaltender Brian Elliot facing the Blues, who traded him over the offseason. Zach Parise and Scott Stevens will make their returns to New Jersey as the Wild face the Devils; Parise, of course, as a player, and Stevens as an assistant coach to Bruce Boudreau.

Here’s the games being played: Toronto at Chicago, 7; N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7; Montreal at Boston, 7; Carolina at Philadelphia, 7; Tampa Bay at Ottawa, 7; Colorado at Florida, 7; San Jose at Detroit, 7; Minnesota at New Jersey, 7; Pittsburgh at Nashville, 8; Columbus at Dallas, 8; Vancouver at Los Angeles, 10; St. Louis at Calgary, 10.

Players to Watch

Chicago: Richard Panik; Don’t look now but Panik is leading the Hawks with five goals in five games. Patrick who?

Toronto: James van Reimsdyk; Will not be playing against his brother, Trevor, as its being reported the younger van Reimsdyk will miss 5-6 weeks with an upper-body injury, as it’s being reported by Scott Powers of The Athletic. The two have played each other just once.

N.Y. Rangers: Mike Zibanejad; Off to a nice start with five points in four games.

Washington: Zach Sanford; The rookie expected to play Saturday after being out of the lineup on Thursday. Will face fellow ex-BC big forward Chris Kreider for the first time.

Montreal: Tomas Plekanec; The 33-year-old center seems to like playing the Bruins, his 46 points against the archrival is the most he’s scored against any NHL opponent.

Boston: David Backes; First game in the rivalry. In 11 games against Montreal, he has four goals and eight points.

Carolina: Victor Rask; The Swedish center leads the Hurricanes with five goals in four games. He had 48 last season, up from 33 his rookie season.

Philadelphia: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare; The French centerman is leading the Flyers with a 54 percent faceoff percentage. He’s won 24 of 44 draws.

Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop; The Lightning netminder played 23 games in Ottawa from 2011-13 before being traded to Tampa, where his career has since blossomed. He is 117-53-17 since that deal, with a .921 save percentage and 2.26 GAA. Bishop has twice finished in the top three of the Vezina Trophy voting in a Lightning uniform.

Ottawa: Guy Boucher; Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s a coach. But the Senators first-year bench boss spent three seasons as the head man in Tampa Bay, going 97-79-20. He led the Bolts to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2011, his first season behind the bench.

Colorado: Patrick Wiercioch; The defenseman has four points in four games.

Florida: Jaromir Jagr; Jagr coming off his 750th goal of the season.

San Jose: Brent Burns; The defenseman has points in five consecutive games to begin the season.

Detroit: Thomas Vanek; Still second on the team with six points.

Minnesota: Zach Parise; Still hanging on 299. How fitting would it be to get 300 in New Jersey, where he spent the first seven years of his career?

New Jersey: Cory Schneider; Has a .938 save percentage and 2.00 GAA in four games. Going to need to keep it up; the Devils have six goals in four games.

Pittsburgh: Patric Hornqvist; He has four points in five games, second on the team behind Evgeni Malkin, who has five.

Nashville: James Neal; Played in Pittsburgh from 2011-14, had 89 goals and 184 points in 199 games.

Columbus: Zach Werenski; The rookie leads the Jackets in scoring.

Dallas: Devin Shore; The 22-year-old tied with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for the team lead with four goals.

Vancouver: Jacob Markstrom; He’s stopped 68 of 73 shots that have come his way in three games.

Los Angeles: Jeff Carter; His 58.8 faceoff percentage ninth in the league.

St. Louis: Jay Bouwmeester; The defenseman played four seasons in Calgary. His 25:52 average time on ice was the highest among the three teams he played for (Florida 2002-09, St. Louis 2013-present).

Calgary: Brian Elliot; Played five seasons in St. Louis, had a 2.01 GAA and .925 save percentage in 181 games.

#HatTrickChallenge

James Neal: Hasn’t found the net in four games. Breaks out against his former team.

Game of the Night

Montreal at Boston: It’s never a dull one when these two teams face each other.

Lock to Win

Minnesota: Zach Parise gets his 300th goal against the team that drafted him and the Wild continue to roll.

 

 

Canadiens Celebrate Home Opener No. 99

It’s the first big Tuesday night in the NHL, and one of the headliners will be the Montreal Canadiens opening up the Bell Centre against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 99th opener for the Habs. It will also be the home debut for big ticket defenseman Shea Weber, acquired from Nashville over the summer.

Here’s the slate of games for Tuesday; Colorado at Washington, 7; Anaheim at New Jersey, 7; San Jose at N.Y. Islanders, 7; Pittsburgh at Montreal, 7:30; Florida at Tampa Bay, 7:30; Arizona at Ottawa, 7:30; Dallas at Nashville, 8; Los Angeles at Minnesota, 8; Philadelphia at Chicago, 8:30; Buffalo at Calgary, 9; Carolina at Edmonton, 9; St. Louis at Vancouver, 10.

Players to Watch

Colorado: Gabriel Landeskog; The Avs captain has nine points in seven games against the Captials, the second-highest output against a team that has been in the Eastern Conference the entirety of his career. He has 10 points in seven games against Ottawa.

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov; The Capitals pivot has yet to record a point through two games. Tuesday’s matchup against Colorado would seem like a setup for a breakout for Washington’s leading scorer last season. In two games against the Avalanche last year, he had a 1-3–4 line. Against 28 games against Western Conference opponents last season, he had 36 points.

Anaheim: Ryan Getzlaf; Has landed 17 shots but has just one goal, coming off a season in which he buried just 7.3 percent of his chances. They have to go in at some point, don’t they?

New Jersey: Kyle Palmieri; Had a 30-goal season in 2015-16, his first year in New Jersey following five seasons in Anaheim. The Ducks would gladly take him back.

San Jose: Brent Burns; He’s got six points in three games. Looks like a man on a mission.

N.Y. Islanders: Cal Clutterbuck; Three points through three games to begin the season.

Pittsburgh: Chris Kunitz; Passed Mike Bullard for 15th place on the Penguins all-time points list with his 361st career point on Monday night. Next up is Greg Malone, at 364. Within striking distance: Mark Recchi (385) and Ron Schock (404). Needs a few seasons for Mario Lemieux’s 1,723.

Montreal: Al Montoya; Carey Price still isn’t ready to return to the ice. Thankfully, Montoya has been pretty good, with 65 saves on 69 shots through two games.

Florida: Jon Marchessault; The 26-year-old is filling in nicely for the injured Jonathan Huberdeau, with two goals and four points through two games.

Tampa Bay: Alex Killorn; He has 11 points in 16 games against the Panthers, the most points against any opponent for the 27-year-old forward.

Arizona: Oliver Ekman-Larsson; Played a yeoman-like 31:46 in the Coyotes opener.

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson; Facing Ekman-Larsson, he makes up half of the showdown between go-to Swedish defensemen.

Dallas: Kari Lehtonen; Will get his first start of the season after making 12 saves on 13 shots in relief of Antti Niemi on Saturday.

Nashville: Mike Fisher; The newly-elected captain has played 19:23 while scoring two points, taking a team-high 44 faceoffs, winning 26.

Los Angeles: Tyler Toffoli; Has put eight shots on net, but just one goal to show for it.

Minnesota: Zach Parise; His next goal will be No. 300 for his career. He ranks 18th among active players.

Philadelphia: Claude Giroux; The only player left over from the Flyers 2010 Stanley Cup run who remains on the Philly varsity.

Chicago: Richard Panik; His four goals in three games are two off the pace he totaled in 30 games for the Hawks.

Buffalo: Ryan O’Reilly; Has 40 points in 55 games against the two Alberta franchises, coming off a monstrous four-point performance against Edmonton on Sunday.

Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau; No goals on nine shots, he’s snakebit.

Carolina: Sebastian Aho; The Finnish phenom has points in each of his first two NHL games.

Edmonton: Cam Talbot; The Oilers netminder has stopped just 86 of the 99 shots he’s faced.

St. Louis: Jake Allen; Needs a shutout to tie Brent Johnson for fifth on the Blues all-time shutout list. A shutout after that matches the 13-shutout output by Roman Turek, who played 121 games from 1999-2001. Lurking in the distance was Glenn Hall, whose 16 shutouts stood as a club record for 42 years until Jaroslav Halak recorded his 17th of 20 shutouts he had in a Blues uniform in October 2013. Brian Elliot, who is the franchise leader at 25, became the standard bearer in March 2015.

Vancouver: Alex Edler; The defenseman is averaging 25:20 through two games. His 24:27 ice-time per game last season was a career-high.

#HatTrickChallenge

Kyle Okposo: The big winger had a great debut on a Sunday, with a goal and assist in the Sabres 6-2 win over Edmonton. He puts up three against a Flames defense corps that looks suspect yet again.

Game of the Night

Pittsburgh at Montreal: It’s the defending Stanley Cup champions visiting the franchise with the most. You can count on the bleu, blanc et rogue reminding them of that at some point during the night. Opening night at the Bell Centre is always a spectacle.

Lock to Win

St. Louis: The Blues jump out to a 4-0 start against a Vancouver team who is out to a 2-0 start, but hasn’t faced a team as good as St. Louis and will be playing its backup goaltender.

Links

Craig Custance looks into Doug Armstrong’s penchant for scooping up first-round picks that didn’t work out for other franchises.

Shea Weber set to introduce himself to the Montreal faithful.

Zach Parise, closing in on his 300th career goal, touches upon his unique relationship with Wild assistant Scott Stevens. Parise’s early days in New Jersey (he was drafted by the Devils with the 17th pick of the 2003 draft, played there until 2012) intersected with the final days of Stevens’ years with the Devils, where he played 13 of his 22 seasons in his Hall of Fame career.

Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, originally expected to miss a month, could return earlier than initially expected. Matt Murray could be close to returning for the Penguins.

With Ryan Miller unavailable, the Canucks have called upon University of British Columbia netminder Matt Hewitt as an emergency backup for Tuesday’s game against St. Louis.

The Avalanche feed off the energy from new coach Jared Bednar and captain Gabriel Landeskog.

 

#HatTrickChallenge and Locks for Friday

First things first – let’s give a warm welcome to the #HatTrickChallenge. It’s basically the Bucci Overtime Challenge but well, with a hat tricks. Feel free to join in on Twitter.

So here’s the first-ever #HatTrickChallenge: Travis Konency, Philadelphia. Adding to the great week its been for rookies, the 19-year-old puts up three against a good Kings defense and backup netminder Jeff Zatkoff.

Konency is a stud. Undersized, intense kid who plays with bite and can score. Basically someone born to be a Flyer. He’ll be on the wing, and is expected to skate alongside Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier. The 2015 first round pick spent the last three years in the OHL, in which he scored 85 goals between the Ottawa 67s and the Sarnia Sting.

Game of the night – Chicago at Nashville: Goes without saying. The league’s preeminent power against a team that is a trendy Stanley Cup pick. Oh, and P.K. Subban is playing his first game in Nashville.

Lock to win of the night – Calgary: No way the Flames get swept by their intrastate rivals to begin the season. Brian Elliott, defense tightens up Glen Gulutzan gets his first win on the Calgary bench.

The Slate: Subban Makes His Predators Debut, Battle of Alberta Continues

Chicago at Nashville, 8

Head-to-head: 3-2 Chicago

Blackhawks player to watch: Niklas Hjalmarsson; Making his season debut, missed Wednesday’s opener finishing out a three-game suspension for a hit on Blues forward Ty Rattie in the preseason.

Predators player to watch: P.K. Subban; dynamic defenseman makes his debut in Nashville uniform.

Storylines

Niklas Hjalmarsson had a hard time watching from the pressbox on Wednesday, but will look to help give the Hawks its first two points of the season on Friday night.

Decisions loom with Hjalmarsson’s return.

P.K. Subban walks back his ‘personality trade’ quote in SI.

ESPN’s Craig Custance among many deeming the Preds blue line to be the best in the NHL.

Quick Hitters

*All three goals Corey Crawford allowed on Wednesday night were powerplay goals. He all 19 five-on-five shots he faced.

*The Predators were 18-9 in games decided in regulation by one goal last season.

Edmonton at Calgary, 9

Head-to-head (2015-16): Calgary 3-2

Oilers player to watch: Kris Russell; returning to Calgary after playing parts of three seasons with the Flames.

Flames player to watch: Brian Elliott; not the debut that was expected from the goalie, allowing six goals on 27 shots.

Storylines

Glen Gulutzan continues to tinker with the defense pairings.

Kris Versteeg in search for a permanent home in Calgary, his eighth organization.

No surprise here – analytics people rip Peter Chiarelli in trades of Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall.

Quick Hitters

*The Oilers scored seven goals twice last season.

*Edmonton scored seven goals in an October game for the first time since 2010 on Wedesday.

*Calgary, last in the league in defense in 2015-16, allowed five or more goals 21 times.

Philadelphia at Los Angeles, 10:30

Head-to-head: 2-0 Los Angeles

Flyers player to watch: Shayne Gostisbehere; dazzled as a rookie, can he follow it up?

Kings player to watch: Jeff Zatkoff; the crease is now his.

Storylines

Ron Hextall’s plan paying off in Philly.

Travis Konency and Ivan Provorov about to make waves for the Flyers.

Quick Hitters

*The Flyers haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2011-12

*Shayne Gostisbehere is one of six players to play 50 games for the Flyers and finish with a plus rating.

*The Flyers haven’t opened the season with a win since 2011.

*The Kings have lost its first two games each of the last two seasons.

Preseason Power Rankings: Lightning the Class of the NHL

Here’s how the last two seasons have ended for the Tampa Bay Lightning; 2014-15, two wins shy of winning its first Stanley Cup since 2004; 2015-16, one win shy of becoming the first team in seven years to win back-to-back Prince of Wale Trophies.

And here’s the thing – the Bolts are only getting better.

The talk in the East has been about Washington, whether or not its the year the Capitals finally break through and put Alex Ovechkin’s name on the Stanley Cup. Of course, that’s been the dialogue for quite some time now. Then there’s also those who bring up the yearly ‘is this the year a Stanley Cup winner defends its title?’ That’s the conversation around Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, down in the central Florida resides the best team the NHL has to offer.

The Lightning are a team built for the modern NHL. A team the plays at a pace that emulates its name, Tampa goes four lines deep of skill players who use their legs as their greatest weapons in creating pressure and forcing teams to make mistakes. The defense corps is among the elite fluent-skating blue lines, led by behemoth Victor Hedman.

Steven Stamkos leads the charge as he kicks off an eight-year pact to remain in Tampa Bay. He’s complimented by rising superstar Nikita Kucherov up front, along with Tyler Johnson, who comes in poised for a breakout campaign.

Goaltender Ben Bishop is one of the world’s premier puck stoppers, while Andrei Vasilevskiy is as good a second option you’ll find.

Health is the big x-factor going into the season, which kind of goes without saying. But when you consider injuries that have befallen key players on the club over the past couple seasons, including Stamkos, Johnson, Bishop, and Anton Stralman, it becomes a little more magnified.

Regardless, this looks like the team to beat at the early goings.

2- Washington: Some might say 1-A. The Capitals have never been built so well for the playoffs during the Ovechkin era.

3- Anaheim: The window is closing. Expect Bob Murray to deal Cam Fowler or one of his blue-chip defensive prospects to provide help up front.

4- Pittsburgh: No team has repeated since the 1997-98 Red Wings. Reports out of Pittsburgh is that the Penguins really want to be that team to do it.

5- Chicago: 30 goals and 77 points as a rookie, yet Artemi Panarin remains grossly underrated.

6- Montreal: Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw add a lot of what was missing in the Canadiens room last season.

7- Dallas: Jim Nill needs to find a goaltender. But you knew that.

8- San Jose: The young guys on the Sharks were flying under the radar this time last year.

9- Nashville: The most exciting team in the NHL. Mike Fisher caps first year as captain by posing for a picture alongside Gary Bettman.

10- St. Louis: If Jake Allen performs to expectations, this team won’t miss a beat.

11- Florida: The Cats have a rebuilt blue line that emulates its in-state rival.

12- Calgary: The Flames won’t finish 30th in defense this season.

13- N.Y. Rangers: Sleeper Stanley Cup pick.

14- Detroit: A defensively suspect team, but the Red Wings should score at a pretty reasonable clip.

15- Minnesota: Bruce Boudreau wins. I could make a cheesy Donald Trump pun, but I’m not going to.

16- N.Y. Islanders: John Tavares wins the Hart Trophy.

17- Philadelphia: Steve Mason is solid, but the goaltending is still feast-or-famine. Everybody is falling in the Michael Leighton trap with Michal Neuvirth.

18- Boston: They’ll be in the thick of the wildcard race again, but the Bruins remain a good year or two away.

19- Los Angeles: The Kings are an Anze Kopitar away from being Team USA-bad.

20- Winnipeg: Newly-christened as the Jets captain, Blake Wheeler finally gets his due among the NHL’s best.

21- Buffalo: Don’t be surprised if this team makes the playoffs.

22- Edmonton: Connor McDavid leads the league in points.

23- Arizona: Oliver Ekman-Larsson makes a push for the Norris.

24- Carolina: Justin Faulk is a finalist for the Norris.

25- Ottawa: Erik Karlsson wins the Norris (again).

26- New Jersey: Cory Schneider can only do so much.

27- Toronto: Still 2-3 years away.

28- Columbus: Potential surprise team. Blue Jackets dispel the ‘John Tortorella only plays guys who trap and block shots’ theory. Zach Werenski wins Calder Trophy.

29- Colorado: MacKinnon and Duchene the bright spots in Denver.

30- Vancouver: It was clear Alain Vigneault was the problem.