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Friday Four: Fearless Flames earning it out West

by Kevin Weekes

Each Friday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four in his Weekes on the Web blog. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, trends or really four of whatever in the NHL that have caught his eye.

This week I'm looking at four teams, four impressive teams -- and I bet you wouldn't have thought to use the word impressive with three of them just a few weeks ago:

1. Calgary Flames

The Flames have been excellent, but this really shouldn't come as any surprise if you watched them play last year. They played really well last year. They matched up against a lot of top teams in the Western Conference. They weren't afraid. They beat a lot of those teams.

To quote one coach that I can't name because he was at one point part of the organization (I'll let you figure it out), he said their team can "scare the daylights out of you on any night." That's a huge compliment for Calgary. They can scare you.

I remember last season I would watch them in a few pregame skates and they were so organized. It was almost like they were attending hockey school. Their guys felt challenged. They were having a lot of fun. It was an environment conducive to learning and getting better.

It goes without saying that last season Sean Monahan had a great rookie season. He started slow, but he's starting to come around again. He's a terrific player with great potential.

T.J. Brodie is real impressive and he's taken major strides. They were proactive in locking him up. That was smart. He's a dynamic skater, sees ice well, has great hockey sense, and can jump into holes. I think his game has taken off.

Johnny Gaudreau
Left Wing - CGY
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 8
SOG: 19 | +/-: 8
And Johnny Gaudreau, a.k.a. Johnny Hockey, I just love his story. I love watching him play. He's a great kid. He's great in interviews. He eats, sleeps, drinks, breathes hockey. But do you know the best thing about him right now? He's challenging NHL defenseman now the way he challenged defensemen in college. He's not afraid of anything. He engages in battles. He's willing to go anywhere.

I guess the question is what does size have to do with it? I say that in my Tina Turner voice. Where's the music?

This team plays hard. They're playing in the west. They're playing against the best of the best. If it's not Ryan Suter it's Shea Weber. If it's not Weber it's Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, or Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. If it's not them its Drew Doughty. There are so many good players in the West that are skilled or rugged and make you earn your ice time.

The Flames are earning it.

Another thing is a lot of coaches don't want to evolve, they're steadfast in their beliefs and don't want to change, but I give Bob Hartley credit for evolving and changing and growing.

I really think he changed his approach when he went to Switzerland. I think he became more open minded. He adopted the skill game. Going there changed how he is with younger players. He's got a lot of young players that process information differently, that see and live in the world a different way.

2. Florida Panthers

They went into their game against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday with the lowest goals allowed in the League. They had played only eight games at that point, but they were allowing only two goals per game. They gave up only two to Boston in a 2-1 overtime loss.

Their strong defense coincides with Roberto Luongo finding his game and playing at the level he's capable of playing at.

Most importantly, when you have a young team with young players learning on the fly you need a goalie that can stabilize things to give you a chance. Those young players are going to have some hiccups and he's been able to mask a lot of that since he's gotten his game on track.

I spoke with Panthers assistant coach John Madden and he was talking about how impressed he is with Erik Gudbranson and Aaron Ekblad. Overall they have a good room. A lot of their young players want to learn and want to be better. They're making the right adjustments.

Brandon Pirri got off to a good start too. He feels he can be a 25-goal scorer in the NHL. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad haven't hit their stride yet.

Willie Mitchell has done a great job of leadership there from people I talk to. It's expected. They couldn't be happier. They're over the moon with him.

3. Winnipeg Jets

As far as Jets coach Paul Maurice is concerned there are certain things he wanted to key on this year. He wanted the Jets to minimize penalties and do a better job of playing without the puck. They want to play hard when they don't have it so guys like Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and big Dustin Byfuglien can go the other way and make plays.

Ondrej Pavelec
Goalie - WPG
RECORD: 6-4-1
GAA: 2.01 | SVP: .924
A key is that Ondrej Pavelec needed to be better and so far he's off to a nice start. He's hit a nice hot streak here. I talked to Jets goalie coach Wade Flaherty about it. He wanted Pavelec to be more solid, to have less pucks through the body, to not have him beat himself. To this point I see that from him. Their goaltending is stable right now.

When the Jets are skating and when they're going they can torch you.

Kane needs to play this way all the time. He's got everything. He can shoot the puck. He can dance you. He can one punch you. He's the complete package. But to be a star you have to be a star each and every day. For him it's recognizing it and doing it on a nightly basis.

It's the same thing with Wheeler. He's come a long way since going to Winnipeg. He's attacking the seams. He's putting his shoulder down. We already knew he could fly, but now he's attacking. He has another level or two to get to if he wants it.

Scheifele continues to mature and I really believe he can be a good player in this League for a long time.

When you put it all together you can see why they're doing better. The key is don't get sold on the hype, be sold on the process.

4. St. Louis Blues

Their goalies have been sick, just awesome.

Brian Elliott is a consummate professional. The way he conducts himself is amazing. I give him a lot of credit. He's been through a lot. It hasn't been an easy run for him. It's taken time for him. He's gone through some trauma too. It hasn't been a smooth easy ride, so I give him some credit.

Jake Allen was probably ready for the show last season, but now he's been amazing and that's a great story.

But more importantly they're not just playing defense. I know Ken Hitchcock loves them to be defensive, that's a big thing with him, but you can't defend your way to the Cup. They have put an emphasis on attacking more. Assistant coach Kirk Muller has brought that to them.

Muller brought some levity there, lightened the atmosphere, and has encouraged them to make plays. They're attacking a lot more now and it starts with Vladimir Tarasenko.

He's the most dynamic player they have. This guy, why can't he score 35 or 40, or even 50 with his explosiveness and how dynamic he is and his quick release? He's got everything. It all starts with him. I think he's awesome.

Jaden Schwartz is dynamic too. He can attack. He's doing it.

The reason I'm harping on attacking is because you've got to be able to win games in different ways. The Blues have to still prove that to us.

We've seen them win the Jennings Trophy. We've seen the low goals against. We've seen the great defensive play. What we haven't seen is St. Louis in the Western Conference Final.

If you're a pitcher, unless you're Mariano Rivera you can't ride one pitch all the time, you've gotta mix it up. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs you have to be able to win in different ways. You have to mix it up. The Blues have to get all of that down now so they can be better in the spring.

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