Two Minutes for Looking so Good: A Look Behind Calgary and Colorado's Hot Streaks

Updated on January 22, 2018

We’re about five days away from the NHL All-Star Weekend (complete with a shitty Kid Rock performance) and it’s the time of the year where teams are either thrilled to finally be going into the break or miserable because it’s about to interrupt their mojo. Unfortunate because there are a lot of teams whose mojos are currently at Austin Powers in the first ten minutes of The Spy Who Shagged Me levels. As it stands, 11 of the 31 teams are entering the All-Star Break riding a 6-2-2 or better run over their last ten games; in other words, 35% of the league is doing really, really good right now. That’s pretty cool. Of course, many of the teams currently streaking are ones that have been streaking all year. Not surprising; it’s very rare to see even one team crawl out of the ooze of mediocrity to suddenly become a playoff contender. So naturally it will come as no shock at all that there are currently two teams doing just that; the Calgary Flames and the Colorado Avalanche.


The two teams couldn’t be any more opposites. The Flames were expected to be good this year after making the playoffs last year behind Johnny Hockey (real name Johnny Gaudreau), Sean Monohan, veteran defenseman Mark Giordano and a slew of young, promising talent. That they are currently in the playoff pictures is of little shock. Meanwhile the Avalanche…well let’s just say no one was expecting the glory teams of the 90’s. Colorado wasn’t only bad last season, they were the worst team in the NHL by fifteen miles, posting their lowest wins and points total in over two decades and a record amount of “you know, Joe Sakic is as bad at this GM thing as he was great as a player” statements from Avalanche fans, all leading to them becoming the first team since the 2004-05 Lockout to post a sub .300 winning percentage. My how the tide has turned this year; as we enter the All-Star Break the Avalanche are currently the 8th seed in the Western Conference and on the verge of saving the job of Sakic, the same man who earlier this year traded away both Matt Duchene and the guy he traded Matt Duchene for (Kyle Turris). But while the Flames are where we thought they’d be and the Avalanche are a complete and utter surprise, they enter the All-Star Break with one thing in common; they’ve both gone from starting slow into becoming the two hottest teams in the league. It’s such a turn around that all we can do is throw up our hands and, in our best Red Forman voice, wonder out loud how the hell they’re pulling this off and if they can actually keep this up.


Let’s start with the first question and let’s apply it to the Avalanche, seeing as they’ve gone from cellar dwellers to, as Randy Savage would say, the CREAM OF DA CROP, YEAH! The easy answer is to say that the Avalanche’s core of young talent has finally started to blossom, led by 2013 number pick Nate MacKinnon and his breakout 23 goal, 36 assist, 59 point season. But MacKinnon has been red hot all year, whereas you’ll see below, the Avalanche have not.

 
Record
Goals
Shots On Goal
Shot Percentage
Goals Per Game
Goals Against
Shots Against
Save Percentage
Goals Against Per Game
After 35 Games
17-15-3
112
1,043 (29.8 Shots Per Game)
10.7%
3.2
113
1,119 (31.9 Shots Against Per Game)
.899%
3.2
Last 10 Games
9-1-0
38
309 (30 Shots Per Game)
12.2%
3.8
17
341 (34.1 Shots Against Per Game)
.950%
1.7

As you can see, the Avalanche through the first 35 games of the year were, while certainly better than last year, average at best outside of their shooting percentage. Things changed for good after a December 27th loss to, of all teams, the bottom feeding Arizona Coyotes; since then the Avalanche have won 9 straight, outscoring opponents at a blistering 38-17 pace while shooting 12.2%. But the offense is only part of the story. As you can also see above, Colorado’s net minders Jonathan Berrier and Seymon Varlamov have made a vast jump, going from stopping only .899% of shots to a robust .950%, a 51% swing. Then there’s the special teams play. The Avalanche converted 17.8% of their powerplays and killed 82.9% of their penalties through the first 35 games, good enough to put them in the middle of the pack. In the last ten games they’ve been they’ve had the best special teams unit in hockey, scoring on the powerplay at a 29% rate (29%!!!) and killing off penalties at a 88% rate, numbers that have helped put the Avalanche in the top ten in both categories. Oh, and for those who think the Avalanche have beaten up on cream puffs during this stretch, think again; their opponents have a combined record of 237-178-57. Everything about this Avalanche run is hot fire.


Speaking of fire, the Flames! Here’s what they looked like during the first 36 games and what they’ve looked like in the ten games since.

 
Record
Goals
Shots On Goal
Shot Percentage
Goals Per Game
Goals Against
Shots Against
Save Percentage
Goals Against Per Game
After 36 Games
18-15-3
101
1,185 (32.9 Shots Per Game)
8.5%
2.7
106
1,117 (31 Shots Per Game)
.905%
2.9
Last 10 Games
7-1-2
31
311 (31.1 Shots Per Game)
9.9%
3.1
21
356 (35.6 Shots Against Per Game)
.941%
2.1

There’s a distinct difference in how Calgary has made their run as opposed to Colorado. You’ll notice that, aside from a decent rise in shot percentage, the Flames offense has, at best, only slightly bettered itself in the past ten games and in some cases has gotten worse, getting outshot by the opposing team by about five shots (in contrast, the Flames outshot teams by an average of 1.9 shots during the first 35 games). What’s kept them going? For starters, how about Goaltender Mike Smith. The 35 year old veteran, brought in to replace Brian Elliot, has turned back into the man who went 38-18-10 for the Coyotes in 2011-12, going 6-1-1 during the Flames hot streak with a 1.87 GAA and a .946% (backup David Rittich went 1-0-1 in the two games Smith didn’t start). Just like Colorado, the Flames have also benefited from Special Teams play. Unlike the Avalanche, Calgary was all over the place with special teams during the first 35; their powerplay unit scored at a solid 17.4% rate, but their PK unit was Jessica Alba in Into the Blue bad, killing off only 77.5% (well below league average). As you’re probably expecting, things have changed in the last ten, with the Flames powerplay improving by 3% while the PK unit has come back to life with an 88.5% rate. In essence, Calgary has remained the same middle of the road team they’ve been all year on offense; it’s the goaltending and defense that has turned them back into the team most anticipated to start the year. Oh, and for those who want the combined record of opposing teams; 216-144-55. Like Colorado, the Flames have backed up this streak by beating some great teams, including arguably the best team in hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning.


So that’s how Colorado and Calgary both got hot. Now comes the hard part; can they keep this up after the All-Star Break? Obviously there’s to be some leveling out expected. None of the goaltenders in this scenario are as good as they’ve been recently or as bad as they were at the beginning of the year, and there’s little reason to believe that either team’s special teams unit will continue at that high a clip. If there’s a vast drop then it could spell huge trouble for both teams, particularly the Avalanche. While Colorado has been great on special teams this year, their even strength numbers are poor; they rank in the bottom five in both Corsi % (47.7%), the bottom six in Fenwick % (47.8%) and the bottom ten in oZS% (48.5%). And then there’s the circumstances of the Avalanche’s winning streak itself. Of those ten games, Colorado only played one game away from home; that’s right, they played nine of their ten games in the Pepsi Center. Obviously nine wins in ten games is nine wins in ten games, but it doesn’t hurt to get home cooking almost every time out. It makes Colorado’s next stretch one to watch as they play 12 of their next 15 games on the road. I’m willing to be we’ll know a lot more about who the Avalanche really are once they’ve wrapped that stretch up.

Nate MacKinnon has spearheaded Colorado's return to prominence
Nate MacKinnon has spearheaded Colorado's return to prominence

As for Calgary, even with a drop in special teams and goaltending play, the advanced stats suggest they should be fine. The Flames are top ten in Corsi %, just outside the top ten in Fenwick %, are top fifteen in oZS% and are well above 50% in each category. The Calgary Flames of 2014-14 they are not. Of course, the Flames have been a high possession team most of the year and were out of the playoff picture until this streak, a streak that coincided with a rise in their special teams and goaltending play. GULP! The good news for Calgary is that they won’t have to worry about road woes; the Flames are an excellent 13-5-4 away from the Scotiabank Saddledome this season, one of the best road records in the NHL. Naturally they’re only 12-11-1 back in Calgary, a number that would be more surprising if not for the controversy between Flames owners and the citizens of Calgary over a new arena (something that’s led to a small decline in attendance). I expect both the road and home records for the Flames will even out, but whether they do or not appears less irrelevant than the Flames continuing to remain strong on special teams. If they can keep their powerplay and PK numbers respectable to what they’ve done during this streak, Calgary should be fine. If not, even with their strong possession stats, the Flames could be in trouble.

In the end, there will be tons of factors besides those above that will influence where both teams go. I would be stunned if both teams don’t make moves, a prospect that will be exciting for Calgary and both exciting and terrifying for Colorado, whose GM’s only saving grace is that he’s the biggest legend in the history of the franchise (sorry Patrick Roy). Even if they don’t, the talent on both teams, from Gaudreau to MacKinnon to Monohan to Gabriel Landeskog guarantees that they’ll be in the picture well into the spring. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t expect the Los Angeles Kings to keep losing (they’re on a six game skid), the Anaheim Ducks to go quietly or even the Edmonton Oilers to not make a sort of run (winners of three straight! If only someone had said they weren’t done). There will be serious competition the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche will have to face to make their respective hot streaks mean something, though the pressure will be vastly different on both. For Calgary, they’re expected to be in this position, and anything less will only serve to further the disappointment of a city both starving for victory and worried about the future. The Avalanche meanwhile are supposed to be competing with the Arizona Coyotes for the worst record in the NHL. In many ways they’ve already won by giving their fans hope with this streak, and even more so than Calgary their streak has shown us the beauty of sports. From season to season, and even within seasons, everything can change in an instant; a team can go from champions to chokers and an underdog can go from worst to first.

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