CALGARY — The Calgary Flames bounced from humiliation into first place in their division in a few short weeks.
Since an embarrassing 9-1 loss at home Oct. 25 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flames have gone 15-5-2. A 32-point haul in that span is second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning (36).
Giving up eight unanswered goals and getting booed at Scotiabank Saddledome is arguably the best thing that happened to the Flames in the first third of this season.
“That was a long night,” head coach Bill Peters recalled Friday. “You never want go through that as a player, as a coach and as an organization and to go through it at home is even worse probably.
“I think it was a real good wake-up call for our guys. I’d rather lose that game and go on a good positive streak than win and go 50-50, lose one and win one and lose one.”
Calgary (20-10-2) tops the Pacific Division and is tussling with the Nashville Predators (21-10-1) and Winnipeg Jets (20-9-2) for first in the Western Conference.
According to the Flames, the last time the team held the conference lead this late into the season was Jan. 5, 1993.
Peters doesn’t want the Flames feeling satisfied with themselves, however.
“Some teams are going to check out, right? The fat guy is going to come down the chimney here in a few days right?” he said. “Some guys are checking out around the league, some teams will check out around the league. Don’t be one of them.”
This Flames team under Peters, in his first season behind their bench, bear a resemblance to the 2014-15 edition feared for its third-period comebacks under Bob Hartley.
The 2015 Flames won a total of 10 games with third-period rallies and overall earned 24 of 97 points when trailing after two.
The current Flames won a seventh game trailing after 40 minutes, scoring twice in the final 68 seconds and again in overtime, in Wednesday’s 6-5 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Flames have turned the puck over more than any other NHL team in their last 20 games, Calgary is almost at good as stealing it to negate that damage.
“Obviously scoring goals in the NHL is fun, but … I think we still have to tighten up defensively,” centre Sean Monahan observed. “We’re giving up a lot of chances, but still generating a lot. We’ve got to clean that up.”
Calgary maintained its momentum into December despite Michael Frolik (lower body), defencemen Mike Stone (blood clot) and Juusu Valimaki (lower body) out of the lineup for the last 10 games, and centre Mikael Backlund (upper body) sidelined the last three.
Backlund skated Friday and Peters thought it possible the Swede could return to the lineup for either Saturday’s game in Minnesota or Sunday’s in St. Louis.
The top line of Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and off-season acquisition Elias Lindholm has produced 25 goals in Calgary’s last 14 games.
“This is definitely the best line that I’ve been a part of,” said Monahan, owner of a team-leading 20 goals in 32 games.
The Flames have limited shots on the goalies since the Pittsburgh debacle with the second-lowest total in the NHL and an average of 25.7 per game.
“We all felt we were embarrassed as a group,” captain Mark Giordano recalled. “At the time it sucked, but looking back, it made us realize we can’t not defend and win.
Since the 2013 retirement of Mikka Kiprusoff, the question persists in Calgary as to whether the Flames have the goaltending for a long post-season run.
Since backup David Rittich started four straight games in November, Mike Smith ran hot with six wins in six appearances until Wednesday.
Peters said the 36-year-old tried to play through pain against the Flyers, but was replaced by Rittich to start the third period after giving up four goals on 14 shots.
Rittich has proven an effective No. 2, but Calgary needs a consistent Smith.
Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said earlier this month “when he’s on, he’s really on. Everybody knows that. When he’s off, he’s really off.”
The Flames called up goalie Jon Gillies from Stockton, Calif., on Friday stating Smith was “day-to-day.”
But Peters indicated Smith will start Sunday against the Blues after Rittich gets a turn Saturday against the Wild
“I expect him to play on this trip for sure. I’d be shocked if he didn’t,” Peters said. “A little bit of maintenance and should be good to go.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press