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NHL Puck Drop: Flames a Stanley Cup contender?

Pro hockey pundit reevaluates the Flames, Hab and Canucks playoff chances, talks shoring up the Leafs leaky D

Entering this season, most NHL experts considered the Calgary Flames a likely playoff contender but not among the Stanley Cup contenders. 

It's time, however, to change that assessment. 

As of Monday, the Flames were atop the Western Conference with 69 points in 50 games, only the Tampa Bay Lightning has more, and Calgary’s won eight of its last 10 games entering Tuesday's contest against the Carolina Hurricanes.

A trio of former Hurricanes - head coach Bill Peters, right-wing Elias Lindholm and defenceman Noah Hanifin - are key factors in the Flames' improvement. The players have bought into Peters' up-tempo puck-possession system. Lindholm is a solid fit on the Flames' first line, while Hanifin is skating on their second defensive pairing.  

Meanwhile, scoring stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are taking their play to a higher level. Same goes for Matthew Tkachuk, who's emerging as a dominant power forward. 

Captain Mark Giordano is playing like an all-star despite the 35-year-old defenceman being passed over for selection to the upcoming All-Star Game in San Jose. Backup goaltender David Rittich is a pleasant surprise, challenging veteran Mike Smith for the starter's job. 

The Flames are on track for their best regular season since their 1989 championship campaign. They are starting to look like a dominant force in the Western Conference. 

Canadiens, Canucks eyeballing the postseason

The Flames aren't the only Canadian teams exceeding expectations. 

The Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks weren't in the playoff discussion when this season opened. Both were coming off poor performances in 2017-18 and were considered in rebuilding mode. 

As of Monday, however, both clubs are holding wild-card berths in their respective conferences.

Young forwards like Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat continue to play crucial roles in the Canucks development. Meanwhile, offseason additions Max Domi and Tomas Tatar are among the Canadiens' leading scorers. 

Both clubs can credit their rookie centres as contributing factors in their improvement. 

Elias Pettersson leads the Canucks and all NHL rookies in scoring, while the Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi was favourably compared to Habs legend Jean Beliveau by Hall Of Fame coach Scotty Bowman. 

Should the Canadiens and Canucks fall short of reaching the playoffs, they've already provided their fans with reason to believe better days are around the corner. 

Leafs hunt for a right side d-man

Toronto Maple Leafs fans won't like hearing this, but their club won't end their 52-year Stanley Cup drought with their current defensive corps. 

The Leafs lack a proven top-four defenceman on the right side of their blue-line. It's an ongoing weakness that, left unchecked, will once again scuttle their championship hopes. 

Media speculation has general manager Kyle Duba hoping to address that issue before the Monday, Feb. 25 trade deadline. Doing so, however, could be expensive. 

Dubas is reportedly unwilling to part with young winger Kaspari Kapanen or top prospect Rasmus Sandin. Nevertheless, one of them might have to be included in a package deal to bring in a rearguard capable of addressing their blue-line needs. 

Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with Sporting News and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian throughout the NHL hockey season.

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