Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
What happened to tonight's visitors, the Calgary Flames?
The former Atlanta Flames (has it really been 35 years since they moved to Canada?) ended the 2014-15 NHL season with a flourish, capturing the last playoff slot in the Western Conference by finishing eighth with 45 wins and 97 points, two points ahead of the 2014 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Flames had failed to qualify for post season play for five consecutive seasons before 2015. Led by rookie Johnny "Hockey" Gaudreau, sophomore center Sean Monahan and veteran winger Jiri Hudler, Calgary had the fourth best offense in the conference. A mobile defense featured veteran ex-Blues Dennis Wideman (15 goals and 56 points) and Kris Russell, Mark Giordano, and T.J. Brodie, while ex-Duck Jonas Hiller cemented himself as the number one goaltender. Calgary took Vancouver in six games in the first round of the playoffs, 4-2, and then the dream ended as they were knocked out by the Ducks in five games.
So, the Flames added coveted defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins (for three draft choices, including two first-rounders) and forwards Michael Frolik from the Jets as a free agent and rookie center Sam Bennett from Kingston of the OHL. With these improvements, Calgary appeared to be one of the best teams in the relatively weak Pacific Division at the start of this season and a lock to qualify for the playoffs.
Instead of challenging the Kings for the division lead, the Flames are floundering, only one game over .500 and just barely in a playoff slot in third place in their division, a mere two points ahead of Arizona, Edmonton and Vancouver. Calgary's offense is average (ranked 14th in the NHL), but the team defense is the worst in the league, as are the power play and penalty kill, both ranked dead last. The Flames also have the highest goal deficit in the NHL, scoring 83 but allowing 105, in arrears by 22 goals. Gaudreau, Monahan, Hudler, Frolik, Wideman, Brodie and Bennett are racking up the points (Johnny Hockey leads the team with 12 goals and 21 assists), yet a porous defense (Captain Giordano is a team worst minus 12) and below average goaltending from Karri Ramo and especially Hiller (3.76 goals against average, .862 save percentage in 10 games) has doomed the team to mediocrity so far.
That being said, it also has to be noted that the Flames have now won seven games in a row, all since December 1, four in bonus-time. That includes two victories against Dallas, currently the best team in the NHL. In that span, Calgary has outscored opponents 27 to 18, an average of around 4-2 per game. Finnish goaltender Karri Ramo has been outstanding, earning five victories and only allowing 11 goals against. Hiller won both his games even though seven biscuits got past him into the basket.
Ramo was drafted in the sixth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft (191st overall) by Tampa Bay, yet played poorly with a goals against average well above three and a save percentage well below .900. So, he went to Russia in 2009 to play for Omsk Avangard of the KHL and find his game. In the meantime, his NHL rights were traded to Montreal by Tampa for a goalie you never heard of (Cedrick Desjardins). He played so well in Russia that he was selected for two KHL All Star games, receiving more fan votes than any other player in 2011. And then in January 2012, he was once again traded (along with winger Mike Cammalleri), this time to Calgary for winger Rene Bourque and a second round draft choice. Ramo subsequently signed a two year, $5.8 million contract replacing the retired Miikka Kiprusoff. In July of this year, the Flames re-signed the 29 year old to a one year contract for a reported $3.8 million. With a terrible training camp and a horrible start (0-3-0, 4.37 goals against average, .879 save percentage), Ramo was placed on waivers on October 22 and assigned to the AHL Stockton Heat. He was recalled a week later. For the record, now back-up goalie Hiller, signed as a free agent during the summer of 2014, makes $4.5 million per year.
Tonight's "marquee match-up" will be the Blues' ninth game in two weeks, seventh on home ice. In that span, the Blues' offense is still struggling, potting only 18 goals in eight previous games in December. Thankfully, that includes six power play goals on 18 opportunities. In the first three games (in Brooklyn and at home against Toronto and Arizona), the Blues were nil for seven, yet in the last five games, the power play has gone an amazing six for 11, over 50%. And during that same span, the Blues killed off 21 of 22 penalties, establishing themselves as the NHL's best penalty killers. Thank you, Brad Shaw.
And it must be pointed out that if the best penalty killer on an NHL team is the goaltender, then Jake Allen has lived up to that maxim, arguably one of the three stars of the game for five of the last six games he has played in, only allowing a total of 12 goals against with a .925 save percentage. Jake is working hard on his way to becoming one of the NHL's premiere goaltenders, ranked fifth in the league in goals against average for goaltenders with at least ten games, ninth in save percentage.
In Jake we trust!