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In unexpected turnaround, Flames climb up in Pacific Division

Flames centre Mikael Backlund checks New York Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic into the boards.

Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Scoreboard watching is big for any NHL team in a playoff hunt, and it is especially riveting now in Calgary, where the Flames have been on an unexpected run this past month and have settled nicely into the postseason mix.

Including Sunday afternoon's 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders, the Flames have won seven games in a row and are no longer involved in just the wild-card conversation. They have inched up far enough in the Pacific Division standings to have both the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers within their sights.

"We've been saying it for the last few games: It's time to start looking ahead and try to catch the teams ahead of us," Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "It's fun. It's nice, but any time you get on a streak like this, you want to pile up as many points as you can because it's not going to last forever."

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Brian Elliott, acquired in a June trade, has stabilized the goaltending after a rocky start. Two small acquisitions – Michael Stone and Matt Bartkowski – deepened the defence corps and the breakout star of their season, Mikael Backlund, continues to produce unexpected offence from what is occasionally still referred to as the team's third line.

The result is a team suddenly humming on all cylinders. The Flames dispatched the Islanders by scoring four goals on five shots in a 4 minute 40 second span of the opening period to chase New York's starting goalie, Thomas Greiss.

Under first-year coach Glen Gulutzan, the Flames started the season 5-10-1, and that sort of performance early generally dooms a team to pondering next-year options even before the Christmas break.

At one point, the Flames were dead last in penalty killing and power play. Sometimes teams need a window to adjust to a new coaching staff and a new system, but for a long time, it looked as though they were trying to jam a lot of square pegs into unresponsive round holes. Everything appeared out of sync. You imagined former coach Bob Hartley – unceremoniously dumped in the offseason after winning coach-of-the-year honours the season before – nodding sagely at how a young team was struggling to find its mojo.

But eventually, the turnaround started and good players who were struggling badly – such as T.J. Brodie and Giordano – began to adjust.

"Now, you can see it," Giordano said. "Now, we expect to win every night. We come in with that belief, and that's huge for a team in our spot."

The Flames have 10 players with 10 or more goals in their lineup and, in the win over the Islanders, each line chipped in with a goal – Michael Frolik, Brodie, Micheal Ferland, Sean Monahan and Kris Versteeg accounting for the balance in the offence. In all, 12 players picked up at least one scoring point against the Islanders.

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This, incidentally, represents the most important change from the past two years, when the Flames were mostly a one-line team, centred on Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau finished tied for sixth in league scoring last season. This year, the highest-scoring Flames player, Backlund, wouldn't crack the top 30.

But what they've given up in one-dimensional star power, they've more than made up for in depth.

"Everybody has a role on our team. Everybody matters in that locker room. It's not just a slogan," Gulutzan said. "We just didn't want to be a one-line team. You need 20 guys to win, you really do.

"What's going to take us far is when you have everybody feeling they're part of something bigger than themselves."

Interestingly, Calgary and Edmonton haven't made the playoffs in the same season since 2005-06, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they do this year, in the crowded Pacific Division. Dreamers are even imagining a playoff meeting between the two provincial rivals, the first in more than a quarter of a century.

The Oilers' surge to respectability has been well documented, thanks to Connor McDavid's exceptional play. By contrast, the quiet renaissance in Calgary has gone largely unnoticed outside the city.

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"Our players, they all train together, they're all in shape, they all can skate, so what's going to separate us?" Gulutzan asked. "We've got to believe. We've got to be a tight unit. We've tried to cultivate that throughout our year, in the things we value and do. We're trying to build a culture here and belief's a big part of that.

"When you can win games when the margins are so tight, it's because all those other things come into play."

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