With the Heritage Classic up next on Sunday for the Calgary Flames, I have found myself thinking about my least favourite team in the NHL. Generally, my thoughts about the Flames consist of, “Flames suck”, followed by a lengthy daydream about the Edmonton Oilers. In my daydreams, the Oilers always play like they did last night against Montreal.
The Flames have been nagging at me the past couple of weeks as they have gone from bottom feeders back in late December to a four way tie for sixth place in the Western Conference. To shake things up, the Flames fired their GM, Craig Conroy retired and Alex Kotalik was jettisoned to the minors. For the most part, the Flames are the same group of old and slow players they always were, but for some reason they are the hottest team in the league. What gives?
Back in September, I outlined my theory that power play opportunities were the key to winning hockey games. Generate more opportunities than your opponents and you should win. I wonder if the Flames success has to do with a change in the number of power plays versus penalties taken.
Another fairly common theory is that outshooting your opponents is the key to victory. Obviously outshooting your opponent does not guarantee victory in a particular game, but teams that consistently outshoot their opponents tend to be in the playoffs each year.
To scratch this itch, I pulled game by game stats for every Flames game this season. I broke their season into three separate sections: the first nine games of the season when they went 6-3; the 26 game stretch from October 28th through December 21st when the Flames went 8-15-3; and the 25 game stretch from December 23rd through February 16th which has seen the Flames go 16-4-5.
I then went through each game to identify if the Flames outshoot their opponents or had more power play opportunities. If they did both, I assigned the game a score of 2. If they did one or the other, I assigned a score of 1. If they were outshoot and took more penalties, I assigned a score of 0.
My expectation is that a team should win the vast majority of games with a game score of 2. The team should lose most games with a game score of 0. I am not sure what to expect with a game score of 1. It is probably too simple to assume a 50% chance of winning.
Anyways, the table below shows the Flames results for each game score in each of the three sections of the season.
I note that the first part of the season played out pretty close to expectations. The Flames won the games they should have won and generally played excellent hockey. They outshot their opponent in each of the first nine games.
The second part of the season represents the 8-15-3 prolonged slump from late October through late December. The team was all over the map, having an equal number of games where they outplayed their opponents (outshooting and more power play chances) and games where they were outplayed.
It is interesting to see that they went 3-5 in games that they should have expected to win. Their 2-9 record in games with a game score of 1 was pathetic. Looking at the individual games, their power play was consistently awful. Their record suggests that their goaltending was not very good either.
Moving to the recent 25 game stretch, it is pretty clear that the goaltending has improved. They are a dominating 9-1 in games they should win and 4-1 in games they should lose. Five of their 7 loses with a game score of 1 have been in overtime or the shootout. As impressive as the Flames have been, they easily could have added another couple of wins to their run.
The last thing I looked at was the number of power play opportunities in each game. I drew a very unscientific line at four power plays. If the team has four or more power plays, they should have a decent chance of winning the game. Give up four or more power plays and they are more likely to lose. In addition to the randomness of assigned four as the tipping point, there are of course some games where the team gets more than four power plays and gives up more than four power plays. The following is just a bit of fun.
An obvious stink bomb appears in the second part of the season. Interesting to note that there has only been one game in the past 25 where the Flames had four or more penalty kills without four or more power plays. The results kind of, sort of, support my thinking about the critical nature of the power play. Goaltending and special teams. If the Flames continue to have both in their favour, they will likely be around for the playoffs.