After dropping their first two games of the 2021-22 NHL regular season, the Calgary Flames have won four in a row, including a 5-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils Tuesday.
Suddenly, in Alberta in October, it feels like Springtime in Vienna, as Flames fans are stoked to see a group that looks far more offensively powerful and defensively responsible than did the Calgary team that missed the playoffs last season. But are they on a sustainable pace? As always, you can read the tea leaves in any number of ways; in this case, it’s safe to say they won’t be winning four out of every five games. However, in a weak Pacific Division, the Flames can be one of the teams that secures a playoff berth. It’s just a matter of who you see them ousting from the playoff picture.
The Oilers? They’re basically a lock to earn a playoff berth. Vegas? Well, they’re hurting physically at the moment, but I think you’d still say they’re one of four teams that can come from the Pacific and carve out a post-season appearance. And after that? After that, the picture gets muddier.
If there are two playoff spots that remain up for grabs, the Flames will be one of four teams – the others being Los Angeles, Vancouver and, perhaps, Seattle – battling for them. And that’s where Calgary’s consistency is going to come into play. They’ll need to get first-rate goaltending from the Jacob Markstrom/Dan Vladar tandem; they’ll need to continue getting a slew of shots on net (they’re third-best in the NHL in shots-for, with an average of 35.3 per game); and they’ll need offensive production from all parts of their lineup.
If just one of those things changes in favor of Calgary’s opponents, the Flames could find themselves in big trouble. If they fail to stay healthy, they’re in trouble. If players such as rookie winger Andrew Mangiapane (who is tied with first-line center Elias Lindholm for first place among Calgary’s goal-scorers, with seven in six games played) find their production leveling off, there will be an inordinate amount of increased pressure on Vladar and Markstrom. Similarly, if there’s a breakdown on the Flames’ blueline, head coach Darryl Sutter will turn to his forwards to help even more in their own zone. Sutter demands a lot from his players, but so long as the win/loss column is working in Calgary’s benefit, there will be no pushback from them.
The Flames may yet falter, and Sutter’s work will be cut out for him. If they don’t continue this pace, Calgary wll fade from the front of the pack, and find themselves in more of a battle with the Canucks, Kraken and Kings for one of the two bottom playoff seeds. That’s probably where most observers had the Flames, anyway. Their depth over the long haul of an 82-game campaign is still worth questioning. The game-in, game-out efficacy of their goaltending is still worth questioning. There are many potential pitfalls ahead for them.
The good news is, of course, the fact they’ve shown that, when it comes to amassing goals, the Flames are a more dynamic squad than they were last season. Once teams scout them out a little bit more, they’ll find it more difficult to score than it is right now. But if out-of-the-blue contributors such as Mangiapane continue to thrive with the puck, Calgary won’t need to depend as much on forwards Johnny Gaudreau, Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, and Flames GM Brad Treliving can be a buyer at the trade deadline. (Calgary currently has approximately $1 million in salary cap space.)
But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Let’s put the horse back where it belongs, and make it clear that the Flames’ horse is going to be challenged throughout the season. They’re not deep or talented enough to just slide by based on skill alone. They need that Sutter-ian internal drive to continue to power their team.
Without it, Calgary could be in for a long year. But from what we’ve seen so far, Flames fans will be happy with their team’s current efforts. The bar has been raised; now it’s all about clearing that bar each and every night.