The Pacific Division playoff picture is still as close as ever. Based on how the Central Division is playing out, there will likely only be three Pacific playoff teams this year, and there are at least five teams that are jockeying for those spots, the Calgary Flames among them. Picking up a huge win last night against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Flames did a great job to help their cause and now sit in top spot in the division based on points percentage.
The Flames have maintained their defence pairings for basically the entire season, but have struggled to find consistent success with their forward lines outside of the top trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk. With a slew of middle-six forwards, it has been difficult to find combinations that work well against other good teams and be able to perform on both ends of the ice within Darryl Sutter‘s system.
Their commanding win over the league-leading Florida Panthers mid-January was the first time we saw the current second line of Mikael Backlund, Blake Coleman, and Andrew Mangiapane skate together for a full game. In the nine games since, this line has been dynamite for the Flames and looks to be one that Sutter won’t be splitting up any time soon.
Calgary’s second line shuffling
Throughout the season, the second centre slot has been occupied by three players at different points: Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube, and Backlund.
With Monahan struggling this season, the Flames have needed a more reliable option down the middle. Dube has been a Swiss army knife type player for the Flames, able to play all over the lineup with no complaints, but he just isn’t a player who is amazing at anything at this point in his development. He can do everything okay, but nothing at a very high level. That has left Backlund, who has occupied the 2C slot more as of late.
Backlund is aging and the hope heading into the season was to have him anchor the third line, but he’s done a tremendous job especially as of late showing why he has been the Flames’ best centre for many years.
The rest of the Flames roster, seemingly, has had a shot at playing on the wing of the second line. On the left side, it has been almost exclusively Milan Lucic and Mangiapane trying out there, with Coleman swapping back and forth between right and left wing.
Of course, it seems like a no-brainer to have Mangiapane on the second line, but as the best goal scorer on the team right now, the preference from the coaching staff was to put Mangiapane on a primarily offensive line.
This is why he has played so much with Dube and Monahan this season. Now, it seems like he has found a home next to Backlund who is now his most frequent linemate, and they are having success together.
On the right side, it’s been another long list of players: Tyler Pitlick, Brett Ritchie, Dube, and Coleman. Many hoped Dube would take a big step forward this season and be a legitimate top-six forward for the Flames, but so far he’s settled in as a third liner. Pitlick and Ritchie have been truly terrible so far and just don’t have the skill to make a line with Backlund and Mangiapane even better.
Finally, Coleman has put together a nice string of very solid games and looks to be the long term solution on the right side of the second line. This is great to see since his contract reflects a role like this, and despite not putting up a crazy number of points so far, Coleman has been an extremely effective player for the Flames.
Ahead of tonight’s Flames contest, the bookies have predicted the Flames as the underdog, with Betway Sports pricing the Flames at +165 and the Maple Leafs at +105 to win the game in regulation, with an overtime decision being priced at +330.
The Mangiapane-Backlund-Coleman line
This line played almost exclusively together since the big win over the Panthers, and they have delivered in a big way ever since.
At 5v5, this line has consistently led the team in ice time and are primarily matched up against the opposition’s top lines. They’ve managed to snuff out the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Max Pacioretty, Bo Horvat, Jordan Kyrou, and Leon Draisaitl.
Possession wise, they have put up impressive numbers across the board in these nine games (5v5 stats via NaturalStatTrick.com):
- 67.20% CF
- 70.21% SCF
- 60.47% HDCF
- 63.23% xGF
Their stellar play driving has also come from a majority of starts in the defensive zone, which just adds to how good this line has been.
This line has scored eight goals at 5v5 and have only given up three over this span of games. All the goals against came from high-danger areas as well; if teams are going to score against this second line, they really have to earn it and get into the highest danger areas on the ice.
Hopefully the Flames have figured out the winning combination on the second line. With the top-six solidified, it leaves the remaining players to sort themselves out in the bottom-six, and hopefully at least one trio on the third line emerges as a line that can be trusted.
The Flames are fortunate to have so many players who can slot into different lines, but having designated roles and responsibilities is something the Sutter game plan is reliant on. The quicker the Flames can establish lines that consistently work in the bottom-six the better they will be. Perhaps the addition of a player like Tyler Tofolli can help round out their top-nine and truly make this forward group as deep as any in the NHL.