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Flames notebook: Familiarity leading to early power play success

In the midst of wrapping up post-game media responsibilities following the Flames’ successful home opener Saturday, Geoff Ward suggested his power play was predictable.

If that sounded like something he wasn’t happy with, guess again.

He explained on Sunday that the ultimate goal is for the group to be predictable to one another, but not the opposition.

“That’s the secret elixir, right?” smiled Ward, whose club sits third in the league with a 44.4 per cent efficiency rate with the man advantage.

“The nuances of how you read off of one another. When Player X has the puck, Player Y has a real comfort level in terms of where they need to be to make the next play possible. When you have a power play together as long as ours, for a couple years now, you get a real feel for one another.”

Mainstays on the top power play unit have included Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk for several years now, with the only newbie being quarterback Rasmus Andersson on the blueline to replace Mark Giordano.

So far so good, as the league’s 12th-ranked unit last year accounted for all three goals in the Flames’ 3-0 blanking of the Canucks Saturday. All told they’re four for nine.

“We’ll take 44 per cent all year long if we can do it,” laughed Ward, knowing Edmonton’s 29.5 per cent from last year is the gold standard. (Last year the Flames were 21.2 per cent.)

“If we can be around 25 per cent or better we’d be happy with it. Big thing is if it doesn’t go into the net, put them back on their heels and generate us some momentum.”

Monahan and Tkachuk scored on the first unit Saturday while Dillon Dube converted a sweet, no-look, behind-the-back pass from Andrew Mangiapane to chip in for the second unit, which includes Milan Lucic, Mikael Backlund and Giordano.

“The unit is intact from last year pretty much so guys know each either pretty well on each unit,” said Backlund. “I feel we’ve been really direct so far and I think that’s been a real key to our success.”

Tkachuk takes the results with a grain of salt, as it’s just two games in and opposing penalty killers haven’t had a chance to scout or work on their structures much yet.

“Honestly, we haven’t worked on it much, [but] there’s no secret formula – just get guys to the net and shoot the puck,” said Tkachuk, whose net-front presence has been key in two of the team’s four power play goals to date.

“You can’t score if you don’t shoot. And take the goalie’s eyes away.”

NEW KID IN TOWN

The Flames signed 27-year-old power forward Brett Ritchie on Sunday and immediately put him on waivers for the purpose of sending him to the AHL or getting him onto the taxi squad. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound winger attended the latter half of Calgary’s camp on a PTO and acquitted himself well enough to be a depth option for the team.

“I remember when I was coaching in Boston and we’d go into Dallas — he was always a player who stood out by how truculent he was and the skill level he had for a big player,” said Ward of the Ontario native who signed a one-year, two-way deal for $700,000.

“Not only did he play against us with no fear, he did an awful lot of things within his skill set to be effective around our net. He’s going to make us a little bit bigger and a little more physical and he has good hands to go with it.”

BLOCK PARTY

The Flames have killed off seven of eight power plays in two games, but none were more impressive than the 1:21 the team killed off while down two men Saturday night against Vancouver’s vaunted power play.

It was a shot blocking clinic led by Christopher Tanev, who had two of his eight blocks on a heroic shift that lasted 2:29 alongside Giordano.

Tanev finished fourth in the league in blocked shots last year, while Giordano finished seventh.

Even so, Ward said he’ll soon be hauling out a brand new bucket of sponge pucks so the lads can practice a skill he says is critical.

“A long time ago when I was with the Oilers in training camp, every year Mac T [coach Craig MacTavish] would bring the sponge pucks out right away and guys would block shots from day one,” said Ward.

“We’ve got a load of sponge pucks that Depo [equipment manager Mark DePasquale] just got and you’re going to see us do a little bit more because we want to be better collectively. We’d like to see more from our wingers than we got last year. Teams that are around at the end of the year all tend to be good shot blocking teams.”

Asked if it’s overrated or a legitimate skill, Ward was clear.

“It’s a skill. It takes courage to eat those pucks, especially with some of the shooters in the league. When you have guys prepared to do that it sure helps the goalies. It’s valued.”

Jacob Markstrom proved to be the ultimate penalty killer Saturday with his 32-save shutout, but the team’s penalty killing included rare appearances from Dube and Mangiapane who acquitted themselves well.

Flames host Vancouver again Monday.

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