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Strong second half helped Flames clinch playoff berth

Stellar play of goaltender Brian Elliott, coach Glen Gulutzan's wakeup call propelled Calgary back to postseason

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

After three straight defeats in January, Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan had seen enough.

He called out his team publicly after a 5-1 loss at the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 24, a game that followed a 4-0 defeat at the Toronto Maple Leafs and a 7-3 home loss against the rival Edmonton Oilers.

The Flames, then fifth in the Pacific Division and ninth in the Western Conference responded with a 5-2-1 run in their next eight games to turn their season around.  

Calgary then went on a 10-game winning streak from Feb. 21 to March 13 that vaulted them into the Stanley Cup Playoff picture. They clinched a berth with a 5-2 victory against the San Jose Sharks on Friday.

The Flames had 51 points (24-23-3) and had allowed 140 goals, tied for seventh-worst in the League, when Gulutzan challenged them.

[Related: Playoff Buzz: Flames, Blues join postseason party]

Since then, the Flames have 41 points (20-6-1), bested only by the Chicago Blackhawks, who have 42 (20-6-2). Calgary has allowed 63 goals, tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the League's second fewest in that span, behind the St. Louis Blues, who have allowed 55.

"I'm not sure it was the 'a-ha' moment," Flames general manager Brad Treliving said about Gulutzan's January outburst. "After the game, we took the train from Montreal to Ottawa. Glen went back and spoke to the players, said we were going to figure this out. He had a direct meeting with the players the next day in Ottawa. They talked to each other. It was not a rip meeting. He went individually to each guy, said, 'Here's your role, do you understand it and are there any questions?'

"So yes, there may have been some frustration to his outburst, but probably some calculation, too. It was all about building bridges, not blowing them up."

The momentum that moment produced goes with the Flames into the postseason, which they will be a part of for the second time since 2009.

Here are five reasons the Flames clinched:

 

Brian Elliott

The Flames weren't in sync with their No. 1 goalie early in the season. He was erratic and they strayed as frequently from their best game.

Elliott's return to form, coinciding with the crisis just before the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game, resulted in a record of 18-3-1, a goals-against average of 2.08 and a save percentage of .930.

"It's the No. 1 thing, goaltending, no different than anybody else," Treliving said. "You can do everything else, but if you don't have the guy in net, it won't matter."

Though Calgary struggled mightily at times in the first half, it's worth noting the season didn't go down the drain because its other goalie, Chad Johnson, put in some quality work that drew plenty of accolades.
On Jan. 15, Johnson was 15-8-1 (2.25 goals-against average, .924 save percentage), and gave the Flames a chance to rally in the second half.

Video: SJS@CGY: Elliott turns away Pavelski at the doorstep

 

Comfort level

Gulutzan's hiring in Calgary on June 17 led to changes in emphasis and demeanor, and the Flames struggled mightily with a new way of doing things.

The Flames were in limbo between old habits and new ones to start the season. There were changes to breakouts, responsibilities without the puck and a de-emphasis on the stretch pass. Gulutzan also asked for better decisions in some 50-50 situations on the attack, preferring a dump-in behind opposing defenders rather than risking a turnover by trying to beat someone 1-on-1.

These things took time before they became more comfortable for the Flames.

Mix in left wing Johnny Gaudreau being without a contract until the day before the regular season started, an offseason injury to center Sean Monahan that kept him out of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 and camp, an injury to center Mikael Backlund at the World Cup and the signing of right wing Kris Versteeg at the very end of camp -- and it's understandable why the Flames were not cohesive early.

 

Best players stepped up

Gaudreau, after signing his new contract, started slowly.

On Jan. 24, he was sixth in team scoring with 29 points (10 goals, 19 points) in 41 games and was a minus-19. Missing 10 games with a broken finger didn't help. And Monahan was fourth in team scoring with 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) in 51 games.

When the Flames clinched on Friday, Gaudreau was back to leading the team in scoring with 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) and his plus-minus was climbing, at minus-3; and Monahan had 58 points (27 goals, 31 assists) and even in plus-minus.

In addition, captain Mark Giordano was back to his assertive self on defense, leading Calgary with a plus-21 rating.

Video: SJS@CGY: Gaudreau tallies off Bennett's pretty feed

 

Defensive stability

It has been more than just Elliott's return to form.

In becoming one of the League's stingiest defensive teams since the all-star break, the Flames have experienced a clear increase in belief in their systems and responsibilities.

Giordano has led the way, but Gulutzan has had buy-in from his group of forwards, too. The signing of free-agent defenseman Matt Bartkowski on Feb. 16 and the trade for defenseman Michael Stone from the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 20 helped provide additional stability and depth.

Stone, in particular, has been a benefit to defense partner TJ Brodie, allowing Brodie more freedom and security to be creative.

 

The Backlund factor

The emergence of Backlund as a strong two-way player has helped the Flames on a couple of fronts.

It has given Calgary a consistent second scoring line (with rookie left wing Matthew Tkachuk and right wing Michael Frolik), and Backlund's increasing effectiveness as a checking center has contributed to matchup advantages.

Backlund, with 21 goals, and Frolik, with 16, had instant chemistry, enhanced with the quality play of Tkachuk, who has added 13 goals, determination and sandpaper to the line.

Tkachuk did not start the season on that line; when the Flames were approaching a decision on the rookie -- whether to keep him past the 10-game mark that would no longer allow his entry-level contract to roll over -- they tried him with Backlund and Frolik at the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 25.

"He has not looked back since," Treliving said.

Which brings up another area where Backlund has been a catalyst, according to the GM.

"He has flourished with the trust from the coaching staff and he's making people around him better," Treliving said. "Michael is always ready to start on time, and that's a good quality to have."

Video: DET@CGY: Backlund hammers the puck home for OT winner

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