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Monday, February 20, 2017

Let's Make a Deal: What Fate Lies Behind Doors 1, 2 and 3 for the Kings, Preds and Flames

The race to make the playoffs in the Western Conference is playing out like a wacky episode of the old television game show Let's Make a Deal.

If you're too young to recall, that's too bad, because it was highly entertaining. I'm thinking in particular of the 1970s version with Winnipeg native Monty Hall as host.



Only in this scenario, the three ridiculously-looking contestants ("These people, dressed as they are....") consist of a dude wearing a crown and velvet burgundy robe, someone in a sabre-toothed tiger costume and a third guy dressed up in a red spandex full body unitard.

What the Kings, Predators and Flames are competing to win is what is hidden behind door No. 1, door No. 2 and door No. 3:
  • 1st wildcard spot
  • 2nd wildcard spot
  • A goat. i.e. No playoff spot (and also a bad draft pick)

There are 49 days remaining in the NHL regular season and it's looking more and more like six teams are locked into the playoffs in the Western Conference.

In the Central, you have Minnesota (84 pts), Chicago (77 pts) and St. Louis (67 pts). In the Pacific, you have San Jose (77 pts), Edmonton (72 pts) and Anaheim (72 pts).

That leaves Nashville (58 gm, 64 pts), Calgary (59 gm, 62 pts) and Los Angeles (58 gm, 60 pts) in pursuit of the two final playoff spots.

For now, I'm dismissing Winnipeg (62 gm, 61 pts), Vancouver (59 gm, 58 pts) and Dallas (60 gm, 56 pts) as too far back.



Breaking Down the Final Seven Weeks

So how do the schedules for those three teams compare? Here's a in-depth look at how things break down:


Nashville - 58 gm, 28-22-8 = 64 pts, 26 ROW
  • Remaining Split - 12 home, 12 road
  • Back-to-Backs - 3
  • Four-Pointers - 3 (vs Cal, at. LA, vs. Cal)
  • Top 6 in West - 7 (vs Edm, vs Chi, at Ana, at SJ, vs SJ, vs Min, at Stl)
  • Big 4 in Metro -  2 (vs Wsh, at Wsh)
  • Best of the Rest in East - 5 (at Mtl, at NYI, at Bos, vs Tor, vs NYI)
  • Nearly Eliminated - 5 (at Buf, vs Wpg, at Car, at Dal, at Wpg)
  • Cellar Dwellers - 2 (vs Col, vs Ari)

Predators still have a tough grind with nine of their remaining 24 games coming against the best 10 teams in the league, each of them are playoff locks. Owners of a much better home record than road record, Nashville also has the ability to essentially bury the Flames with both of its final four-point games with Calgary taking place at the Bridgestone Arena, the first one being this Tuesday. In addition to the Flames, the teams appearing multiple times on their remaining schedule are Winnipeg, still trying to hang around, the surging Islanders who have been better under new coach Doug Weight and the defending Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks.


Calgary - 59 gm, 29-26-4 = 62 pts, 26 ROW
  • Remaining Split - 12 home, 11 road
  • Back-to-Backs - 1
  • Four-Pointers - 6 (at Nsh, vs LA, vs LA, at Nsh, vs LA, at LA)
  • Top 6 in West - 5 (at Stl, vs SJ, vs Ana, at Ana, at SJ)
  • Big 4 in Metro -  2 (vs Pit, at Wsh) 
  • Best of the Rest in East - 4 (at Fla, vs NYI, vs Mtl, vs Bos)
  • Nearly Eliminated - 5  (at TB, at Car, vs Det, at Wpg, vs Dal)
  • Cellar Dwellers - 1 (vs Col)

The six four-pointers left against the Predators and Kings make up over a quarter of their remaining schedule. It puts Calgary very much in a position to control its own destiny, especially against Los Angeles with four of the final 19 games against the Kings and three of them at the Saddledome. The final six games all coming against California teams will make for a difficult final dozen days. One silver lining is when the Flames host Ana, LA and SJ the last week of March, all three will come to Calgary having played the previous night in Edmonton. Key for the Flames is improving their play at home where they have a worse record than on the road.


Los Angeles - 58 gm, 28-29-5 = 58 pts, 27 ROW
  • Remaining Split - 15 home, 9 road
  • Back-to-Backs - 5
  • Four-Pointers - 5 (at Cal, vs Nsh, at Cal, at Cal, vs Cal)
  • Top 6 in West - 8 (vs Ana, at Min, vs Stl, at Edm, at Edm, vs Edm, vs Chi, at Ana)
  • Big 4 in Metro -  2 (vs Wsh, vs NYR)
  • Best of the Rest in East - 2 (vs Bos, vs Tor)
  • Nearly Eliminated - 4 (vs Van, vs Buf, vs Wpg, at Van)
  • Cellar Dwellers - 3 (at Col, vs Ari, vs Ari)

The four games against Calgary stand out, but so do the three remaining with Edmonton. Suddenly Flames fans will be rooting for their provincial rival. While the Kings have way more home games left, it's interesting to note that five of their nine remaining games on the road will be in Alberta. The other stat that jumps out is five back-to-backs left, which are never easy. Versus Chicago and in Anaheim on a back-to-back to finish the season also sets up to be a challenge. Ducks could be in a position to rest some regulars in that final game but then again, potentially eliminating LA would be some big motivation considering their heated rivalry.


Get In and You Never Know

What should make Flames fans stand up and take notice is who their first round opponent would be should Calgary squeak into the playoffs. It's looking very likely that the wildcard teams would play either the Wild or the Sharks. Minnesota is seven points clear of second-place Chicago in the Central. The Sharks have a five-point lead atop the Pacific.

To refresh your memory, Calgary has played very well against both of them this season, going a combined 5-1-0. They swept the three-game series from Minnesota including a resounding 5-1 win at the Saddledome in their last meeting on Feb. 1, which ended the Wild's 14-game road points streak.

Meanwhile, playing in San Jose hasn't been nearly as difficult as the 'Haunted Center' in Anaheim. Calgary won 3-2 in November and has won five of their last seven visits to SAP Center.

Would the Flames enter a series against either as the underdog still? Absolutely, but their regular season success would give them a lot of confidence going into both match-ups and you know what they say about the Stanley Cup playoffs, that first round -- especially for the favourites -- is sometimes the hardest series to win. There are always upsets, every year.


Not Great But Few Teams Are

After a 2-1 overtime loss in Vancouver on Saturday, I sensed a lot of despair among the residents of Flames nation. But welcome to life on the bubble. Very few teams in the West are without warts and inconsistency is about the only consistency.

They found a way to salvage a point in a road game and every point matters. Plus, they outplayed the Canucks and that's what you want right now. As long as the team is playing well, the results should follow.

Calgary remains in a very good position to make a push. If they can get middle-of-the-pack calibre goaltending as Brian Elliott has been delivering lately -- maybe not stealing games, but not losing them either -- that will carry them a long way.

They'll also need to generate far more offence and Glen Gulutzan continues to tinker with his forward group to try and find the right mix. This is perhaps the most glaring area of concern as they need to get more up front. The 3M line has been great, but can't do it alone.

In terms of tweaks, I'd suggest a depth addition or two at the trade deadline would be prudent too. Nothing expensive, this isn't the time to part with 'A' prospects or high draft picks, but improve around the edges.


Final Word

Having missed the playoffs in six of the last seven years, you don't want to hover around the bottom of the standings forever. You need to advance the team forward and show some progression. A playoff appearance this year with Calgary's young core would make them a far more formidable team in 2017-18. Keep building, getting incrementally better, accrue valuable experience and see where it takes you.

Where this team is at right now, and looking at where the rest of the league sits by comparison, a playoff spot is by far the best outcome versus picking 11th in the upcoming draft. That should be the sole focus of everyone from management on down.

Whether hockey into late April is behind door No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3.  We'll wait and see but as I see it -- and using the most rudimentary of mathematical calculations as I think the Predators, Flames and Kings are that even -- that translates to a 67 percent chance of finding a wildcard spot.

However you're dressed, fans should be excited about those odds. Back to you, Monty.




By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.

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