Johnny Gaudreau and Joe Colborne of the Calgary Flames. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche shocked the hockey world by finishing atop the Central Division. This season, the Calgary Flames look to be the next team to beat the odds and make the playoffs, and they're doing it in the exact same fashion.
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche went on an impeccable run. They won early, they won often, and they shocked pundits around the world by finishing atop the Central Division.
The entire time, however, the wild ride was clouded by statistical anomalies that said their pace couldn’t be maintained. With those anomalies now coming to roost – Colorado has lost 11 games this season – eyes have shifted the next great surprise: the Calgary Flames.
From the outside, there aren’t many similarities between the two teams. Colorado has three young all-star talents at forward with Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon, all first-round draft picks. While Mikael Backlund, Sven Baertschi, and Sean Monahan are no slouches, they’re certainly not at the same level as the Avalanche trio.
In goal, Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov may just be the best goalie in the Western Conference, if not the league. As for the Flames, an aging Jonas Hiller signed with Calgary during the off-season, looking to prove himself again after losing his starting job in Anaheim to a pair of rookie netminders.
Where Colorado could be buoyed by some of the finest young offensive players in the league, Calgary doesn’t quite have that benefit. What Calgary does have, however, is a pair of stud defensemen in T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano, who are both tied for the team lead with 13 points apiece. Giordano, who last season could have made a serious case for the Norris Trophy, is playing like a man who wants to take home the award this year. And the 24-year-old Brodie looks like he could be right alongside his captain in the race.
But when you get into the numbers, when you look behind the curtain of the wins and losses and a too-good-to-be-true record, the similarities start to pop up. For both the 2013-14 Avalanche and 2014-15 Flames, the PDO scores are above 100, Corsi For and Fenwick For percentages are below 50, and the 5-on-5 goal percentage for both squads are well over 50 percent even while getting dominated in the possession game.
When playing at 5-on-5, Colorado shot a miraculous 8.77 percent last season. The number was in league with contenders like St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago. This season, Calgary is maintaining a 9.47 percentage, albeit less than one fifth of the way through the campaign.
The production from Calgary has been spread throughout the team, with the defensemen contributing just as much as the forwards. Rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau has two goals and eight points, while veteran Jiri Hudler leads all Flames forwards with 10 points, three of which are goals.
Shockingly, however, what makes the two teams the most similar at this juncture is the goaltending had to be lights out and it was and has. The signature of the Avalanche last season seemed to be consistently getting out-played with timely saves from Varlamov carrying the team to victory. This season, it has been much of the same from Hiller.
Take Tuesday night for example when, in the dying seconds, Washington led a break into the Calgary zone and the tie was preserved by a desperation toe save from Hiller. It was saves exactly like that which were the reason for Colorado’s success. This young season, the same can be said for Calgary.
Colorado ended last regular season with a .930 save percentage at 5-on-5. As of Tuesday evening, Calgary sits at .942. Unsustainable? Certainly. But no one expected it to be this way, especially from Hiller, just as no one expected Varlamov to maintain his incredible play for the entire year.
While there is certainly a lot of season to be played, it’s hard to deny that the statistical similarities and on-ice heroics are making these teams look like mirror images. Hanging their hats on strong goaltending and timely contributions while getting dominated in the possession game, these two teams are more alike than I’m sure the former rivals would even like to admit.
And like Colorado last season, which rallied around fiery coach Patrick Roy, Calgary seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to please their coach, Bob Hartley. Whatever Hartley’s doing to motivate the troops, especially Hiller, is working for the time being.
If the end result for the Flames mimics that of last season’s Avalanche, don’t be surprised if come April we’re talking about Calgary’s first round opponent instead of their first round pick.