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Are the Calgary Flames for real?

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And should the Sharks be worried?

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Flames beat the Penguins in a shootout last night to win their 10th-straight game. So it’s time for us to sit up and take notice of Calgary now that the team has moved into a tie for second place with Anaheim in the Pacific. This team isn’t the Kings’ problem anymore — the Flames are the Sharks’ problem.

To what extent should San Jose be worried about meeting the Flames in the playoffs? It’s looking likely that meeting won’t happen until the second round at the earliest if Calgary continues to win, so the Sharks have that going for them. Here’s what hockeyviz.com had projected in the first round for San Jose entering Tuesday:

This comes after Calgary beat the Penguins to push themselves even further into an automatic Pacific spot. That’s not of much consequence to the Sharks, of course, because I believe San Jose is a team that’s going to play beyond the first round. So let’s assume the teams meet in the second round of the postseason. How big a threat are the Flames of sending the Sharks home too early?

Good question! First, let’s take a look at how the teams have matched up this season. Remember the two teams meet up twice more: on March 31 and again to close out the season on April 8.

The Sharks are 1-2 against the Flames this year. That’s not a great record. San Jose has outscored Calgary 8-7 over those three games and those two losses have come by identical 3-2 scores. Focusing on the results of individual games is a mistake, in my book, and ignores what the teams are right now. Let’s face it: Calgary is a better team right now than it was at the beginning of the season. Don’t believe me? Check out this graph from corsica.hockey.

Notice something about that green chart? Calgary got a hell of a lot better right around the new year. What changed? Another great question. The Flames are a young team with a good coach (listen, anyone other than Bob Hartley is a huge improvement in this writer’s opinion) and perhaps this is just a culmination of all that.

What’s interesting about this Calgary team is the balance in its scoring. Johnny Gaudreau, wonder boy that he is, started the season very slowly in the scoring department. As such, the Flames are getting things done with a collection of players who didn’t have more than 50 points before Monday’s game against the Penguins.

That, from hockey-reference.com, will get the job done. The depth in scoring from Calgary is pretty impressive and, joined with Brian Elliott remembering how to play goalie, has helped the Flames rise up the standings. Elliott’s save percentage is still a mediocre .910 on the season after a solid performance against the Penguins last night — that’s a massive improvement over where it was earlier this season.

Of course that doesn’t explain why Calgary has improved its possession game. My hunch is it lies in the excellence of its top six forwards. That top six group includes the following lines:

Matthew Tkachuk — Mikael Backlund — Michael Frolik

Johnny Gaudreau — Sean Monahan — Micheal Ferland

These are really good lines. Check out this chart from hockeyviz.com to get an idea of how good.

You can see those forward lines are really dragging this team along. That’s (primarily) why I’m not too concerned about meeting a team like the Flames nor the Oilers in the playoffs. The Sharks can overload their top six, hard-match Marc-Edouard Vlasic to the top line and mostly neutralize the threat posed. If San Jose wins the goaltending matchup, they should be fine.

With that being said, it seems Calgary has turned the corner from “team on the rise” to “solid hockey team.” So I think yeah, this Calgary team is for real. They’re just a few pieces away from being a real pain in the neck in the Pacific for an entire season. Luckily for us, Brian Burke is in charge over there, so there’s always hope he’ll mess it up.