The year 2004: that was the last time the Calgary Flames were in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1988-89, when they won the Cup over the Montreal Canadiens in six games. In the 2003-04 season, the Flames lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but after that there wasn’t much to cheer for in Calgary.
The 2004-05 lockout hindered the Flames’ chances of returning to the Stanley Cup the season following their run, although they did manage to win their division in the 2005-06 campaign, only to fall in seven games to the then Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the conference quarterfinals. The Flames then managed two third place finishes and a second place finish in the next three seasons, but were bumped in the first round of the playoffs each year. 2008-09 was the last time the Flames saw playoff action, as they have found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference for the past five years. They have not had any playoff appearances, and the departure of long time captain Jarome Iginla in the 2012-13 season hit them hard.
Heading into this season with the second-lowest salary cap and rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Josh Jooris on the roster, expectations weren’t very high for Calgary. But, they have come out and surprised everyone, and are tied for the sixth most points in the league and third in the Pacific Division after Sunday’s contests.
One of the most impressive things about the Flames’ hot start is their offense. A team that was 23rd in the league last season in goals scored per game with 2.46, the Flames are seventh in the league in goals per game this season, averaging three a game. This is due in large part to a well-rounded team where everyone contributes, from 31 year-old captain Mark Giordano, who leads the team in points with 18, to 20-year old Sean Monahan, who leads the team with six goals. The team has also received huge contributions from defenseman TJ Brodie, who has 14 points, Juri Hudler, a seasoned veteran who has five goals, and Gaudreau, who is second among rookies in points with 12.
Despite not having any truly big name players on the roster, the Flames have managed to receive a mix of contributions from veterans like Giordano, Hudler, long with rookies and lesser experienced players like Brodie, Gaudreau and Monahan. This success is happening in spite of injuies to key forwards Matt Stajan, Mason Raymond and Mikeal Backland, who were all major contributors to the team’s offense last season. If the Flames have been able to produce like this offensively against some of the best teams in the Western Conference, imagine how good they will be when they are fully healthy.
Another big reason for the Flames’ success this season is their tandem between the pipes. Karri Ramo was decent in net for the Flames last season, but if they wanted to be successful this season they were going to have to go out and acquire a true number-one goalie who would give Ramo the time and experience he needed to one day become the everyday starter for Calgary. Enter Jonas Hiller: the 32-year old was let go by the Anaheim Ducks, who were confident in their young net minders to carry the load this season, allowing the Flames to ink him for a two-year deal worth $9 million. Thus far, this deal has paid off. In 10 starts, Hiller is 7-3-1 with a 2.07 goals against average and .931 save percentage, while Ramo is 2-2-1 with a 2.85 GAA and .901 save percentage in his six starts.
Signing Hiller was a huge boost for the Flames, who wouldn’t have had as solid a backup if Ramo were their starter. Now, Hiller and Ramo split time 60-40 in favor of Hiller, and it has worked out in the Flames’ favor, who sit at 13th in the league allowing only 2.5 goals per game.
The Flames are by no means perfect, having the 22nd-ranked penalty kill in the league, and it is still early in the season, but I don’t think anyone predicted this type of start out of them. Even with Hiller bolstering the goaltending position, the Flames still don’t really have a big name like Iginla on their roster at the forward position, but it appears that they don’t need one. With the veteran leadership they have and the stud talent of their youngsters, they have proven early on to be a force to be reckoned with in the West. Will it continue? With an early Calder Trophy candidate and solid goaltending, it’s not hard to imagine this young team out of Calgary could steal a playoff spot and surprise a whole lot of people.
Anthony Pucik is the Assistant Sports Editor for The Fordham Ram