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  • Harrison Brooks

Why The Flames *Could* Be The Real Deal (not James Neal)

After a convincing win against a less than formidable opponent in the 2020 play-in round the Calgary Flames have sparked hope in their fan base once again. The first glimmer of hope came in 2015 when the comeback kids shocked the league and not only made the playoffs but won a round against, really, the only team they could have - the Vancouver Canucks. Reality quickly sunk in the next year when the still-rebuilding Flames missed the playoffs.

The following year the hope was restored when the young up and coming team looked like it was taking a step towards being a perennial playoff team only to get bounced in four straight games by the Anaheim Ducks and followed that up by missing the playoffs again the next season.

Last season it seemed like everything was falling into place. The Flames had one of the most dangerous lines in the league, they cruised through the season to a second overall finish only trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even the playoff matchup against the 8th-seed Avalanche seemed like the best-case scenario. But we all know what happened there. After winning the first game the Flames once again crushed all the hope built up among their fan base by losing four straight in embarrassing fashion.

So why is this year different? To be honest, I have no idea if it actually is, but it definitely feels different. Even as the 2nd seed in the entire NHL last year, there was more than a fair amount of fans pointing to their less than stellar second half as a reason to quell optimism. But this year it seems as though the team might be clicking at the right time.

Halfway through this year’s campaign, it seemed like a season to forget for the Flames. With the controversy surrounding their former head coach Bill Peters, the underperforming stars, and the up and down goaltending many fans were already writing off this season.

But then Geoff Ward took over. And even though it wasn’t an obvious change, they started playing better. They started playing more consistently and were essentially a lock for the playoffs despite being in the 8th spot when the season was canceled.

If the Flames have, in fact, figured it out, their improved play can essentially be boiled down to three aspects: making the right adjustments, the emergence of depth, and learning from past mistakes.

After taking over as the interim head coach during the season fans found it refreshing and exciting that Ward was willing to try new line combos to try to spark the team, something that Peters was reluctant to do. However, after a while, that excitement faded as it seemed that was Geoff Ward’s only move. It felt like he was just a stop-gap and he was coaching like it.

When the season re-opened and the Flames were able to have a mini-camp a shift happened and they became Geoff Ward’s team. And he implemented some adjustments that resulted in the Flames being one of the stingiest defensive teams so far in this post-season.

Just take this Cam Talbot quote from the Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson as an example of what Ward has done.

“We tightened up quite a bit, and you can see we’re not giving up nearly as many chances. We pack it into the middle of the ice really well, and we don’t give a whole lot of chances from the middle. We’re doing a great job of forcing guys to the outside, forcing guys to the top, and then guys are getting in shooting lanes, blocking shots and forcing them to go back to below the goal-line. So we’re not giving up a ton of Grade A chances.”

While he started out being too quick to juggle lines, these playoffs have shown that he is getting more comfortable with managing the lineup. Case-in-point, he has found lines that work and he has stuck with them, which has given the team three dangerous lines.

Last season it was really all on the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm. And if they weren’t scoring, the flames weren’t winning - and they weren’t scoring. Mikael Backlund’s line was decent but more of a shutdown role and the third line was atrocious being weighed down by the offensive black hole that was James Neal.

This year, replacing the aging Michael Frolik with the little ball of energy Andrew Mangiapane, and James Neal with a hitting, fighting, five-game-point-streaking Milan Lucic has been a revelation. Combine those upgrades with the emergence of Dillon Dube and Playoff Sam Bennett and now the Flames are rarely on the ice without the threat of scoring.

But the biggest thing that makes this version of the Flames feel different from past ones is the team’s newfound resolve. Heart-and-soul player, Matthew Tkachuk, told he is “sick of losing” and that his team “ wants redemption” after last year’s embarrassment.

The Flames have a history of folding like a lawn chair when faced with adversity and not taking advantage of momentum when they get it.

The 10 straight losses in game two’s is a prime example of the latter point. And it looked like we were in for a repeat of last year when the Flames beat Winnipeg in convincing fashion in game one only to come out flat in game two. Game three of that play-in round series was their biggest test, and they passed and haven’t looked back since closing out the Jets in four and taking a 1-0 series lead against the Dallas Stars in round one.

The new test will be showing that killer instinct all contenders have and ending their game 2 losing streak and taking a stranglehold on this series. If they do, watch out, because this team could do some damage.

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