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Monday, February 23, 2015

No, the Western Conference Sky is not Falling

Calgary has spent 100 days in a playoff spot this season. But today is not one of them. Instead, for only the 38th time and first time since January 17, the Flames woke up today outside of the playoff picture in the NHL's Western Conference.

It was a harsh reality that jarred awake the residents of Flames Nation like having a glass of ice-cold water poured on your face and it has left fans feeling much consternation.

Much consternation about nothing, that is.

I'm not here to tell you to cancel your May vacation so you can be in your regular seats for Flames playoff hockey at the Scotiabank Saddledome, but I am here to add in some context to where the team is at right now and debunk a couple of myths that I overheard already today.

As you'll see, the sky isn't nearly as cloudy as it may seem.


Myth No. 1 - Flames No Longer Control Their Own Destiny

Incorrect. 

Sure, Calgary is outside of a playoff spot but they're three points back of Winnipeg and hold two games in hand. The Flames also comfortably own the first tie-breaker with the Jets, which is regulation/OT wins.

If the Flames pick up three points in those two make-up games -- the very definition of controlling one's own destiny, they move back ahead of Winnipeg and into a wild card spot.

Even if Calgary only picks up only one point out of those two games in hand, the Flames still control their own destiny with the Jets as they play in Winnipeg on the final day of the season so if they're within two points headed into that game, they'd still have a chance.

As for the Sharks -- tied in points with Calgary, the Flames also have two games in hand on them and own the tie-breaker so again, things are very much in Calgary's control.

So over the last 48 hours, with the Jets only mustering one point out of Toronto on Saturday and the Sharks losing to Los Angeles in the outdoor game that night, Calgary's playoff chances have actually improved despite falling out a playoff spot yesterday with Minnesota's victory.


Myth No. 2 - Flames May Need 100 Points to Make the Playoffs

People are getting so caught up in what the Wild and Kings are doing lately but really, it's a moot point. While I agree that you may need 100 points or more to stay ahead of the Kings and Wild, that's not who Calgary should be focused on right now and that's likely not where the playoff cut-line will be.

For me, those two teams have solidified themselves as locks to make the post-season in the Western Conference and it would not surprise me nor should it concern Flames fans if they are beyond reach in no time.

Los Angeles

The Kings are back looking like the team that has won the Stanley Cup twice in the last four years and are the reigning champs. While some saw them as vulnerable as they languished in 10th and 11th in the West, I was not one of them.

Here's a team that has played a lot of post-season hockey lately and what they're building towards is peaking in May, not in January. They've demonstrated before it's all about just getting in and for them, the urgency kicked in once they arrived briefly in 12th place in the conference a couple weeks ago. I would be shocked if the Kings finish anywhere other than second in the Pacific Division. Heck, first place could still be within reach if Anaheim falters.

Minnesota

The Wild are not a new phenomenon. It may seem that way given their blistering 13-2-2 streak since Devan Dubnyk's arrival but they have been outplaying teams most of the season, they were just victimized by some leaky goaltending during the first half that turned wins into losses.  Now they've repaired that hole and are no longer a bubble team in my opinion. Heck, they're breathing down the neck of the Chicago Blackhawks for third in the Central Division.

If you're wondering if Dubnyk is a flash-in-the-pan, he's been doing this all season. It came without the same fanfare given the lousy team in front of him in Arizona but Dubynk was also very good with the Coyotes before the Wild pulled off the heist of the century by plucking him out of the desert for a third round draft pick. His cumulative numbers on the season are not far behind Pekka Rinne, Carey Price, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Welcome to the Vezina discussion, Devan.


The way those clubs are rolling, it will not be the Kings and Wild, who will keep the Flames out of the post-season. Instead, Calgary will need to beat out two of Winnipeg, San Jose and I'd put Vancouver in that mix also. It won't take 100 points to get in but as I explained a couple weeks ago in this piece, I'm sticking with my guess of 95 points. The playoff spots up for grabs, as I see it, are third place in the Pacific and the second wild card spot.


Flames Faring Just Fine Lately

Perhaps it was the spectacular nature of the Flames third period collapse on Friday against the Anaheim Ducks that led to all the sudden angst but if you go back over the last six weeks -- starting January 10 with that 1-0 win in Vancouver that kicked off Joni Ortio's magical run, Calgary has been getting results. Navigating through one of the most difficult segments in their schedule, the Flames have gone 11-5-1.

Further, each of those six setbacks over that stretch are what I'd categorize as forgivable losses. The six teams that have beat Calgary -- Anaheim twice, Minnesota twice, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. Those four teams all made it into the second round of the playoffs, or further. These are legitimately good teams the Flames have lost to and are not the types of losses that come back to haunt you.

People point to the Boston game and the Flames rally from a 3-0 deficit and calling it a lucky comeback to beat the Bruins. Sure, chalk that one up as luck. But again, it wouldn't have been a worrisome game to lose either. Boston also went two rounds in the playoffs last year also and while they have been scuffling a bit lately, they just went into Chicago on Sunday and spanked the Blackhawks so don't underestimate them either.

As well, don't forget that Ducks loss was the first time all season Calgary has blown a third period lead so this is hardly a trend. Every team in the NHL has coughed up a third period lead at least once this year except for Chicago.


Road Warriors

Could this seven-game Eastern road trip be a killer for Calgary? Maybe. Might we look back on it and say it is the trip that put the nail in the coffin? Possibly.

But I won't say 'probably' because of the resilience we've seen from this team all season. Remember when they lost seven straight in regulation and went winless in eight? Two months later they had fought and clawed their way back to 10 games above .500.

Let's also not forget that the Flames have played well on those so-called killer road trips all season, continually finding ways to win hockey games in opposition buildings. This is the fourth five-games or longer road trip they've departed on and they've finished above .500 on each of the first three.
  • October 9-19 - Six-Gamer (included tough stops in Stl, Chi, Nsh, Wpg), went 4-2-0
  • November 2-10 - Five-Gamer (included tough stops in Mtl, Wsh, TB), went 3-2-0
  • January 10-21 - Five-Gamer (included tough stops in Van, SJ, LA, Ana), went 4-1-0

Remaining Schedule

As of today, I see the playoff race in the West as shaking down to four teams for two spots and those four teams are Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver (Ryan Miller out 4-6 weeks, as it was announced on Monday is a major blow) and San Jose.

Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Minnesota are Central locks. Anaheim and Los Angeles are sure bets in the Pacific.

I am also excluding Dallas and Colorado for now. It's not to say the Stars and Avs can't get themselves back into the mix with a hot-streak but there's a lot of teams to pass. I've got them on the outside looking in at the moment and perhaps we'll see over the next week leading to the NHL trade deadline what their management thinks the chances are.

Here's a simple breakdown of remaining schedules:
  • Canucks - 23 games left, 13 at home, 10 vs non-playoff teams, plus Wpg (2), SJ (2)
  • Flames - 23 games left, 9 at home, 12 vs. non-playoff teams, plus Wpg 
  • Jets - 21 games left, 12 at home, 5 vs. non-playoff teams, plus Van (2), SJ, Cal
  • Sharks - 21 games left, 10 at home, 9 vs non-playoff teams, plus Van (2), Wpg   

If you look at that, Calgary -- from an opponent perspective (number of non-playoff teams faced) and Vancouver -- from a home-road split perspective, have the easiest schedules left. 

The Jets, Canucks and Sharks also have a few games left among themselves, which could play a huge role. Calgary only has one game left against the other three bubble teams -- that April 11 matinee in Winnipeg.


Outlook

What are the odds of the Flames making the playoffs? I'd suggest the chances are between 40 and 50 percent as of today. So it's not probable, but it's very much possible and while this road trip -- if it turns out miserable, would sink them, something middling like a 3-4-0 trip or even 2-4-1 would still very much keep them in the mix.

The bottom line is the excitement isn't going away anytime soon so get comfortable. With Calgary recalling Michael Ferland and Emile Poirier on Monday morning, a glance into the club's future, that only gives fans of the Flames further reason to hang in there, keep the faith and hope this Cinderella season continues.

The coaching staff, the players, they always keep saying the same thing over and over. You can't get too high and you can't get too low. It's as cliché as it gets but as a fan, it also doubles as some sage advice. Still a long, long way to go.


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1 comment:

  1. Allow me to predict that it will come down to the Flames vs Winnipeg on the last game of the season and the Flames will need 2 points to tie Winnipeg, which will mean Calgary makes it based on the tie breaker. Flames will win it in OT after a 3rd period comeback. A fitting end to the season!

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