Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Weekend wrap: The Fall of the Flames

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: The Fall of the Flames

Over the past two weeks, slowly but surely, one of the year’s best stories has been unraveling. During the season’s first two months, the Calgary Flames had emerged as the league’s most unlikely quasi-contender. Despite an underwhelming roster that had most experts pegging them as top candidates to be Connor McDavid’s next home, the Flames started off the year hot, and then defied the odds by staying that way.

On December 4, the Flames beat the Avalanche in overtime. It was their fourth straight win and moved them to 17-8-2, good for 36 points and leaving them just one back of the Ducks and Canucks for first place in the Western Conference. The roster was basically Mark Giordano, a bunch of kids, and some replacement-level spare parts, but they worked hard and never quit, and somehow they just kept winning.

That was the narrative, at least, and if you were the sort who likes to attribute success to intangibles like leadership, culture, and compete level, the whole thing was irresistible. But anyone who pays any attention to underlying numbers could see the Calgary correction on the horizon; just about every warning light on the Flames’ dashboard was flashing bright red and had been for some time. We flagged their high PDO a few weeks ago, when they were shooting the lights out percentage-wise, and their possession numbers have consistently been awful. The stats guys saw what was coming. The fan blogs saw what was coming. The league’s own website saw what was coming.

And since that win over the Avs, the inevitable has arrived. The Flames have lost eight straight, dropped all the way out of a playoff spot, and are now scoring into their own net. And all of that advance warning hasn’t made it any less painful for fans, both of the Flames and of great stories. It was fun to imagine that a team like Calgary really could overachieve on sheer strength of character and hard work. After all, the franchise has largely been a nonfactor for the last decade, victims of thin rosters and shortsighted management. Nobody likes to be wrong about a team, but in this case it sure would have been fun to see the Flames continue to defy expectations.

Can they get back on track? They sure seem to think so; just a few days ago, they gave coach Bob Hartley an extension, at least partly based on their early-season success. And with 47 games to go, there’s still plenty of time to make up lost ground, especially if they can improve their possession game and stop relying on unsustainable percentages.

If not, at least the kids who make up so much of this rebuilding roster can say they’ve had a small taste of winning hockey. That’s not Connor McDavid, but it’s something.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. New York Islanders (23-10-0, plus-13 goals differential): They’ve won four straight, including impressive weekend wins over the Red Wings and Lightning.

4. Anaheim Ducks (22-8-5, plus-5): A pair of weak efforts resulted in 6-2 losses to both of the Ontario teams last week, but they’ve built up enough of a cushion that they’re still alone in first place overall.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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