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The Calgary Flames are turning a new leaf thanks to defence-first hockey

The on-ice product of the Darryl Sutter hockey brand is not much of a secret. Everyone knows that the team playing in front of Sutter is going to be forced to be highly defensive, whether they are built to play like that or not. That’s just the type of coach Sutter is and the type of hockey he demands.

The early returns of Sutter hockey for the Calgary Flames suggests that it’s not going to be different this time around. The Flames have been tasked with playing a completely different style of hockey than they did under Geoff Ward.

How has this affected the Flames so far in Sutter’s start with the team? Let’s take a look at the past few games and the on-ice happenings to see.

MTL @ CGY – March 11, 2021

In Sutter’s first game with Calgary, the Flames topped the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 2-1. Montreal managed just 18 shots over the whole game, and just 35 corsi at all situations.

These two plots tell a huge story about the on-ice defence from Calgary. First, looking at the corsi, Montreal was unable to get much going at all for the whole game. They had more shot attempts in the first period, but Calgary took over in the second and third.

Being up two goals heading into the third period, the Flames were extremely effective at shutting down Montreal’s offence. While Calgary also took their foot off the pedal in terms of shot attempts, at least relative to the second period, they still pressured Montreal and did not so much as allow Montreal much.

While the Canadiens were finally able to score in the third, the momentum they picked up was minute and was quickly stifled by the Flames. Further, looking at where the Canadiens shot the puck, Montreal was not able to get in very close for many shots attempts. Jacob Markstrom went largely unchallenged all game long.

MTL @ CGY – March 13, 2021

Repeating the script, Calgary beat Montreal again, the second time by a score of 3-1. While Montreal was more successful at getting to the net with 25 shots and 49 corsi at all situations, the end result was the same: Calgary allowed just one goal for the second straight game.

This time, the Flames opened the first period much better and held Montreal to barely anything, sustaining a long stretch without giving up a single shot attempt. While the second periods were more even between the two teams, the Flames got themselves into a similar position as they did one game prior.

With a two-goal lead heading into the final frame, the Flames were focused on shutting things down once again. Montreal opened up the period with good pressure, but were unable to score. Halfway through the period, the Flames prevented the Canadiens from getting a single shot attempt over a lengthy stretch again. As the game drew towards its end, Montreal was finally able to generate offence with their goalie pulled, but were unsuccessful at finding the back of the net.

Looking at shot locations, a similar story unfolded where many of Montreal’s shot attempts were from afar. Markstrom was hardly challenged with high-danger chances at all.

EDM @ CGY – March 15, 2021

The Flames looked to continue the stingy defensive efforts. Immediately based on their opponent alone (no offence, Montreal), it’d be a much harder task to do against the high scoring Edmonton Oilers. Calgary picked up two crucial points as the game finished 4-3 for the Flames.

It was a given that the Oilers would be hard to defend against. The Flames saw different on-ice outcomes compared to their prior two games, while some similarities remained.

First, the two teams were actually quite even in terms of corsi and shot spread at all situations. One thing to note is that Calgary got ahead early with both goals and shot pressure, and the Oilers instead played catchup in multiple aspects of the game.

Edmonton was successful in tying the game up at three goals apiece. However, right after the Flames answered to restore their one goal lead, Calgary switched gears and once again played to prevent Edmonton from getting shots.

The Flames effectively stopped Edmonton’s momentum for a long stretch in the third, and it wasn’t until the game was finishing up that Edmonton was able to sustain pressure again. The first half of the Oiler’s late game push came at 5v5 followed by 6v5 hockey with their net empty.

Though the Flames weren’t as defensively clean as they were against Montreal, they were entirely focused on defence as Edmonton pushed back. Calgary’s last shot attempt at all situations came just a bit past halfway through the period, everything after that was purely trying to stop Edmonton from tying it up again.

Defence wins

The Flames are simply not the same team right now. While the Flames struggled with their identity for the first half of the season, they already found a new one just three games into Sutter’s tenure. Their style of hockey is frustrating to play against and puts a much bigger emphasis on defence than they did before.

Not afraid of dumping and chasing, the Flames are finding themselves in more battles in the offensive zone, and are forcing their opponents to do a lot more skating to generate shots. Even when the Flames give up the puck, their opponents are more likely to start from their own zone rather than the neutral zone, requiring more energy expenditure. It may seem trivial, but it adds up over the course of a game.

It’s still very early, but a clear sign of changing times even appears when it comes to sports betting. Flames are finding themselves slight favourites for tomorrow’s game from various oddsmakers, as consolidated on It’s probably not a coincidence either, given their current hot streak is clearly backed by some strong fundamental hockey.

As time goes on, some sound bets for the Flames might be even taking the under on the total goals in a game or picking the tighter spreads on Flames goal differentials if they’re favoured to win. Don’t expect the Flames to be lighting it up each game, but instead the strong emphasis on shut down hockey will be used by Sutter for the season’s second half.

Call it the coaching bump or call it getting their game together, the fact of the matter is the Flames are playing at a different level of hockey and they’re getting early returns for their efforts. It’s not going to last forever, but the Flames were at a critical junction in their season just last week, and now things are looking much clearer.

Sutter said so himself: “I’m not interested in coaching just to coach, I’m coaching strictly to win a Stanley Cup and that’s it. Nothing else.” For the Flames to match Sutter’s expectations, they’re going to have to start by getting themselves back into the playoffs. So far, so good.

Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

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