The Pacific Division has by far the most upended preseason predictions through the end of January. The Vegas Golden Knights, which were supposed to be bottom dwellers in their inaugural season, are at the top of the Western Conference standings. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers are near the bottom despite a clear core in the present and the future.

While it has not always been smooth sailing, the Calgary Flames find themselves in the middle of the pack. They have lost seven straight games with the Oilers (including the bad version), and sticks have been thrown in practice, but the Flames are currently third in the top-heavy Pacific Division and find themselves in the middle of what should be a thrilling 11-team race for eight spots.

The Flames have visits from Vegas and Tampa Bay after the All-Star break in what will be critical evaluations of where the Flames stand in the Western Conference. Before that, however, here are three notable observations for the Flames through 49 contests.

Big production from the All-Stars and top lines

It is becoming a broken record to see Johnny Gaudreau as the main All-Star representative for Calgary, but this year has been a major improvement. Last season, the New Jersey winger had a pedestrian 61 points that led a balanced attack, partly because of injuries, but he is just five points away from matching that total this season. Two years after hitting 30 goals for the first time, Gaudreau has adjusted his game in a way that is similar to that of Nicklas Backstrom and Jakub Voracek, who leads the league with 47 assists. Fittingly, Gaudreau sits in a tie for seventh with Voracek in points.

Gaudreau had been the only Flame selected for the All-Star team until Jonathan Quick decided not to participate and take a one-game suspension. Calgary goalie Mike Smith replaced him on the roster, and it was the first time a Flames goaltender had made the All-Star team since Miikka Kiprusoff in 2007.

Smith made the All-Star roster last year, but that had a lot to do with the Coyotes not having many options for candidates. This season has been much different. Besides Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury being the only other goalies to have put on consistent show in the Pacific Division, there is weight in arguing that Smith has kept the Flames afloat in the playoff race. Calgary had been ravaged with goaltender issues ever since Kiprusoff retired, and Smith is putting together the most complete season for a Calgary goaltender this decade. In 41 starts, Smith has a GAA at 2.39, which would be his lowest since the Coyotes huge playoffs run in 2012. While the Coyotes wait to see how Brandon Hickey, who was traded to Arizona for Smith, pans out, it is clear that the 35-year-old goaltender still has the ability to dominate a game. The Flames are on their way to pulling off a huge trade win.

As expected, there are several players that made a case for the All-Star team, but ultimately fell short. Sean Monahan leads the Flames with 22 goals as he continues to thrive on the top line with Gaudreau, and Micheal Ferland continues to step up as the third piece of that line. He has remained consistent all year with 19 goals, including at least three in each month, and he capped off the first half with a through-the-legs assist that eventually ended with a tic-tac-toe goal between Monahan and Gaudreau in Wednesday’s OT loss to Los Angeles.

While the 3M line is not as dominant as last season (Michael Frolik also has a broken jaw, which never helps), it is still contributing enough to be noticed. To Drew Doughty’s dismay, Matthew Tkachuk has not fallen off during his sophomore season. While two of the three picks immediately before Tkachuk have become regulars on their respective teams, the Arizona native has already passed his rookie season’s goal total through 49 games, and he will likely cruise past his 48 points from last season barring an injury or an extensive slump. He carried the offense on Thursday with two goals, including the game-tying goal.

With a regularly hated youngster comes an under-the-radar first round pick. Mikael Backlund had the points lead for long stretches of time last season, and he has still produced despite a drop in goal production. He has spent more time contributing to Tkachuk, especially on the power play, and is still on pace to get close to his point total the year before. Have I mentioned he leads the team with 54 penalty minutes? That would make a decent trivia question if he holds that lead (Tkachuk will probably pass him, though).

Not much production from the back lines

It is not like the Flames have no-namers on the back lines. Troy Brouwer is not the scorer he once was, Kris Versteeg has battled injuries, and Jaromir Jagr is probably at the finale of his long career. Sam Bennett found some footing in November and December, but a slow January leaves him at six goals, 11 assists, and lots more to be desired. The Curtis Lazar experiment does not look great either (just five assists this season), but the Senators have not had much luck on their side of the trade. Because of these inconsistencies, the Flames have had to improvise.

Mark Jankowski was expected to make the roster earlier than he actually did, but he has taken advantage. He has eight goals and seven assists through 41 games in his first significant action in the NHL, and those points have been spread out. Calgary’s first rounder from 2012 will be counted on to provide a spark behind the top lines as he looks to become one of the better late bloomers in the NHL. Garnet Hathaway has also produced since getting consistent playing time in December, and prospects Ryan Lomberg, Andrew Mangiapane, and Marek Hrivik will likely get more looks on the fourth line after strong performances in the AHL.

There are still plenty of question marks near the bottom lines, and that may convince Brad Treliving to go after a depth scorer, such as Florida’s Radim Vrbata. February, however, could also be a great time for those AHL standouts to break out.

The Flames have a “golden” chance to catch Vegas because of how they play against great teams

Despite being in the same division as the Vegas Golden Knights, Calgary has yet to play them this season. That will change on Tuesday, as Vegas goes on its first ever trip to the Saddledome. The two teams play four times from then until the final game of the season, which will be the only other game between these two in the Saddledome.

Could a series sweep, or even a 3-1 series win, change the entire complexion of the Pacific Division? Fans everywhere are still waiting for Vegas to drop off like all expansion teams do, and their last game before the break was not a good one. To make matters worse, the Flames have found their stride against the better teams in the NHL.

They started things off by sweeping the Washington Capitals and winning two of three against St. Louis. They also have yet to suffer regulation losses to Winnipeg, Colorado, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Then came the second game of Calgary’s trip to the southeastern United States. Smith had another huge night, and the top three lines smothered Tampa Bay for a surprisingly easy win over the best team in the NHL.

While the Flames have yet to win since returning from that road trip, they still have an 11-game point streak intact. The next nine games look daunting, especially with a road trip to the northeast, but Calgary may find themselves in great position for the playoff race if they play the way they have since Glen Gulutzan tossed a stick.

Calgary finds itself in a similar position as last year in that the playoffs are far from a certainty. Will they try to get aggressive at the trade deadline, or will the current cast of skaters (and Smith) look to ride the point streak wave to a top three finish? With 11 Western Conference in the thick of the playoff race (and do not count out Chicago just yet), it will take a lot of key victories to break through like last year.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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