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The Calgary Flames and Their Third Period Mastery

Sunday night, the Calgary Flames were down 4-0 after two periods of play in Ottawa. They had been outshot 31 to 21 by the Senators and things looked grim. But the third period has been Calgary’s strength on the season and they didn’t accept defeat on the night. Instead, the Flames went to work.

That amazing four-goal flurry by Calgary got the game to overtime. The Senators won in the shootout, but earning one point from the maw of a 4-0 deficit was victory enough for the Flames. In the midst of a tight playoff race, every point that Calgary can earn is precious.

Coming back from behind when down by four goals may be extreme, but Calgary has made a habit of earning points when trailing this season. They are tied for the NHL lead with 10 victories when trailing after two goals with the Anaheim Ducks. That is impressive and shows the resiliency of the team. It is also concerning because the Flames are one of only six teams to trail after two periods in at least 30 games this season. Here are the records for Calgary and the other five teams on that list in those games.

Team Number of Games Trailing after 2nd Wins Losses OTL
Calgary 30 10 17 3
Toronto 35 4 31 0
Edmonton 30 2 26 2
Carolina 30 2 26 2
Arizona 30 2 27 1
Buffalo 33 1 31 1

The other five teams in that chart all have one thing in common. They are the five worst teams in the league by record. And then there is Calgary. The Flames are holding down the third and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division, two points ahead of the Kings and five in front of San Jose.

How is Calgary turning situations where they should lose into victories? They are scoring in the third period. To be more accurate, they are scoring a lot in the third period.

Team Points 3rd Period Goals
Calgary 77 84
Carolina 57 50
Toronto 57 60
Arizona 49 40
Edmonton 47 49
Buffalo 43 40

As the chart shows, their ability to score in the final period turns them from a team that could be competing for the number one overall pick to a playoff hopeful. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning have scored more third period goals than the Flames this season. But Tampa hasn’t depended on third period scoring in quite the same way that Calgary has.

Team 3rd Period Goals Total Goals 3rd Period Goals Allowed 3rd Period Goal Percentage 3rd Period Differential
Tampa Bay 86 220 55 39.1% +31
Calgary 84 187 48 44.9% +36
Montreal 78 171 49 45.6% +29
Anaheim 74 190 56 38.9% +18
Nashville 72 191 56 37.7% +16
New York Islanders 70 207 73 33.8% -3
Ottawa 68 180 61 37.8% +7
New York Rangers 67 195 52 34.4% +15
St. Louis 67 196 53 34.2% +14
Washington 66 197 54 33.5% +12

Among teams that currently rank in the top ten of third period scoring, only Montreal joins the Flames in generating over 40% of their total goals in the final stanza. In fact, those are the only teams in the entire league that count on the last 20 minutes of the game for that much production.

It’s not just the scoring that makes Calgary’s ability to come back impressive either. They also become much harder to score against. They have allowed the fewest third period goals so far this year and therefore they have the league’s best goal differential in the third period. That is the key. They enter the final period trailing almost as much as any team in the league, but the Flames have found a way to score without allowing any more goals in the final 20 throughout the season.

This third period dominance has given the Flames playoff hope, and last night’s comeback happening without their captain and best player, Mark Giordano, has to be encouraging. The bigger question for Calgary however is the sustainability of third period mastery. Looking at last year’s numbers, four of the top ten teams in third period scoring are currently not playoff teams: Philadelphia (tied for 2nd), Columbus (6th), Toronto (7th) and Colorado (9th). The number one team in third period scoring from 2014, the Boston Bruins, are currently holding on for dear life as the final wild card team in the east. More importantly, they currently rank 28th in that same category. The only team that finished last season in the top ten of third period scoring that currently ranks there now is St. Louis, who finished last year fourth.

Doing the same analysis for comebacks in the third period yields similar results. The Avalanche, Coyotes and Flyers were all in the top ten of comeback victories last year and the New Jersey Devils were 11th. All are non playoff team at the moment now. But the more interesting thing to look at is total victories and games earning points when trailing after two. Last year’s top team in wins were the Islanders with 10, Calgary’s current total. Three different teams earned points in 13 games last season when trailing after two which was the top amount. Calgary currently has ten wins and three overtime or shootout losses in that same situation. Only the Boston Bruins (.304) had a winning percentage of over 30% when trailing after two periods in 2014. Calgary is currently at .333.

Of the top ten teams in third period comebacks last season, the Los Angeles Kings were the only team that advanced to the conference finals. The Kings obviously won the Stanley Cup last season. They had six third period comeback victories and three extra time losses with 21 defeats. That total comes to 30 games where they trailed after two. Which is exactly where Calgary is now.

The 2014 season saw one team in the top ten of third period comeback victories make the conference finals. What happens when you expand the sample?

Year Conference Finalist Rank Conference Finalist Rank Conference Finalist Rank Conference Finalist Rank
2014 LA Kings t-8th NY Rangers t-13th Chicago t-13th Montreal t-24th
2013 Chicago t-4th Boston t-10th LA Kings t-10th Pittsburgh t-10th
2012 LA Kings t-29th NJ Devils t-11th Phoenix t-15th NY Rangers t-11th
2011 Boston t-8th Vancouver t-8th Tampa Bay t-16th San Jose t-20th
2010 Chicago t-6th Philadelphia t-21st San Jose t-11th Montreal t-14th
2009 Pittsburgh 1st Detroit t-2nd Carolina t-2nd Chicago t-20th
2008 Detroit t-4th Pittsburgh t-4th Dallas t-12th Philadelphia t-18th

The chart shows that most conference finalists aren’t teams that live and die by the third period comeback. The 2013 season was the lockout shortened season, so it’s not surprising that all four teams rank in the top ten in comeback victories. The 2009 season had the top three teams in comeback victories all make the conference finals, but that could be considered an outlier. Calgary could succeed in the playoffs continuing in this manner, but it isn’t likely.

The ability to comeback in the final 20 minutes of a hockey game is certainly a useful skill. The Flames are riding it to an unexpected playoff berth at the moment. They may not be able to rely on it for much longer, but should they make the playoffs, it would certainly be worth it. If nothing else, it gives us great drama like they produced last night.

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