Saturday, February 13, 2016

Flames Playoff Hopes: Nothing but a Mirage

There is no better way to describe the Flames playoff hopes than this, as taken verbatim from page 279 of my Merriam-Webster dictionary.
mirage (noun)Something that is seen and appears to be real but that is not actually there.

It's fitting that this optical effect most often experienced in a desert appeared while Calgary was in Arizona.

Having won three games in a row and four of their last five, the Flames entered Friday night's clash with the Coyotes at the Gila River Arena looking to get back in the Western Conference playoff race. And by that, I don't mean a shot at the Pacific Division top three as the California teams are running away with those three post-season passes.

More so, the opportunity unexpectedly lies in the wild card race.

It wasn't supposed to be this way but a woeful year for Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne -- sporting a save percentage of .902 (39th) after a .923 mark (9th) a year ago -- has hurt the Predators record. A dreadful stretch of hockey lately for Minnesota -- losers of eight in a row and 13 of 14 -- suddenly has the Wild looking old and past due. Lastly, it's been a forgettable season for the Winnipeg Jets.

As a result, Pacific teams are legitimately in contention for a wild card spot and one of the two bonus entries into the playoffs that most of us thought would be reserved for Central Division teams only.

Heck, with a win in Glendale on Friday along with some help on the out of town scoreboard, Calgary could have woken up Saturday morning within three points of the Predators and the second wild card spot. Instead, the gap was six and it grew to eight after Nashville's victory Saturday night.

Parched, what appeared in the distance for the Flames to be a body of cool, fresh blue water, was just our eyes tricking us.


Smoke and Mirrors

A flat performance in a 4-1 loss to the Coyotes confirmed what many suspected that the Flames 4-1 record over the last 10 days was more illusion than reality.

After beating Carolina, there was a lethargic 2-1 home ice loss to the cellar-dwelling Blue Jackets. After bouncing back to win in Vancouver, Calgary was fortunate to hang on for a 4-3 victory against a wretched Leafs team whose 18 skaters and one goalie amounted to a payroll of $29.6 million -- over $42 million below the league salary cap. Then came an implosion in San Jose and the blowing of a 4-1 lead only to escape with the shootout win courtesy of a late tying goal.

Something that's become increasingly obvious in recent weeks and was hammered home Friday night is don't trust your eyes, playoff chances are not nearly as close as they may seem.

Of the numerous areas of concern with this club right now, here are six in particular:

1. Lack of Trust

A philosophy introduced by the organization two years ago was that Calgary's AHL team would play the exact same style and system as the Flames. The intention was to make it easy for players to come up from the minors and seamlessly slide into the NHL line-up without missing a beat. But it doesn't seem to be working based on the head-scratching (lack of) use of veteran Czech defenceman Jakub Nakladal.

The circumstances heading into the Arizona game begged for the insertion of the 28-year-old into the line-up. Calgary had been worked over big time on Thursday in San Jose being outshot 42-22 and giving up a whopping 83 shot attempts. With Friday's game coming less than 20 hours after the draining 6-5 shootout win -- and with Ladislav Smid coming off a tough night in which he was the principal culprit on two Sharks goals, rotating in fresh legs seemed like an obvious move.

Nope.

Instead, it was another press box assignment for Nakladal, who despite being Stockton's best defenceman, cannot crack the line-up of one of the NHL's worst teams. Over his two stints with Calgary that has amounted to 10 games, he has only played once. His NHL debut on the night of the infamous Super Bowl groundings was limited to a Tim Ramholt-like two first period shifts and 105 seconds of ice time.


2. Lack of Emotion

A frequent target of scrutinization the first three months of the season, Jiri Hudler has not had the most impactful year. Given way more rope on the No. 1 line to get his game kick-started than many would have given him, the NHL's even-strength scoring leader a year ago has mostly underwhelmed. While he has battled a lingering groin issue, much of the season his intensity has more closely resembled someone who just signed a long-term deal, not a pending UFA seeking one.

Yet, at least twice last night, skirmishes broke out in front of the Arizona net and the only Flames player emotionally invested was Hudler. That says a lot. While Hudler had his gloves up and was jostling with multiple Coyotes, others on the ice like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Dougie Hamilton just stood around, showing the emotion of three guys browsing for books at the library. When the give-a-blank meter is highest for Hudler, that's saying something.

Sam Bennett, Josh Jooris and TJ Brodie were a few others that caught my eye as being engaged against Arizona but for the most part, it was a pretty quiet night with most players more content to fit in than stand out.


3. Lack of Desperation

Trailing 3-0 headed to the third period on Friday, the odds weren't good. Down three goals, the odds are never good. That said, they weren't exactly playing in the raucous unfriendly confines of the United Center. The Coyotes had entered the night having lost five in a row and nine of their previous 11. Rookie goalie Louis Domingue had given up 17 goals in his previous four starts for a .853 save percentage.

So what do the Flames do in the third? Exhibiting all the urgency of my teenage son unloading the dishwasher while watching Rooster Teeth videos on his iPod, Calgary comes out and fails to muster a shot on goal in the first 10 minutes. Domingue isn't tested until 10:43, a shot that eludes him off the stick of Joe Colborne. Surely that's the spark, right? Wrong again. After Hamilton's 40-foot slapper on the next shift, the Flames go eight minutes in which a Deryk Engelland backhander is the lone shot turned aside by Domingue.

The fight to the finish that was a trademark of this team a year ago. That energy, that dogged determination, that 'we can do it' swagger was nowhere to be found last night. Blame the back-to-back if you're looking for an excuse but three shots the first 19 minutes of the third when you enter the period down by three is abysmal.


4. Lack of Goaltending

The knock on Jonas Hiller the last couple years has been his propensity to give up an early goal. He did it again on Friday.

He entered the night feeling good after his impressive rescue mission against the Sharks in which he was dropped into a cauldron of boiling water in the form of a two-minute, two-man advantage in a tie game with three minutes to go, and somehow emerged the winning goalie in a shootout. With the Sharks smelling blood, Hiller stopped all eight shots -- many dangerous -- in eight perfect minutes of relief of the injured Karri Ramo. The 34-year-old added three more stops in the skills contest.

But the good vibes didn't last long. Whether it's a lack of focus or what, Hiller whiffs on Shane Doan's harmless-looking 50-foot wrister 3:31 into the game and on their first shot, the Coyotes had the lead for good. A couple more questionable ones followed along with a near-goal at the start of the second that body language suggested Hiller thought had beaten him, only for it to go off the crossbar.

That type of 'groaner' or 'bench sagging' goal is what Karri Ramo, to his credit by tweaking his style, has been able to mostly eradicat from his game. Since the start of December, he strung together a .917 save percentage to take over as the de facto starter. But fear is the Finn could be out a while after suffering a bad knee or leg injury and that leaves Hiller in charge.

There are 45 goaltenders with enough playing time to qualify for the NHL's save percentage leaders. Hiller ranks 44th at .894, just percentage points ahead of Coyotes third stringer Anders Lindback.


5. Lack of Discipline

If the referees are lashing back at the Flames, they're not doing a very good job. The 'Dennis Wideman payback' conspiracy theory became a Twitter thing the last couple nights after the Flames were shorthanded 16 times over the past two games.

Conveniently lost in such absurdity is the fact Calgary had only been shorthanded a total of four times over the previous three games.

Were there a couple soft calls over the last two nights? Sure, but at least a dozen were legitimately dumb penalties and that's way, way too many. You don't get away with those kind of shenanigans when you're the second-worst penalty killing team in the NHL.

The result is twice in 48 hours the Flames gave up three power play goals in a game. To put that in perspective, that had only happened twice over the previous 48 months. Those two occasions since December 2011 were April 3, 2013 versus Edmonton (3-for-5), and October 19, 2013 at San Jose (3-for-9).


6. Lack of Smarts

Throughout the game last night there were bad decisions and coming from veteran players. Hamilton forcing an outlet pass from behind his net that would have been a goal had Hiller not bailed him out on. Mikael Backlund almost had a costly gaff in his own end. Gaudreau too often was trying to do too much and coughing up the puck along the way.

These are not chronic issues with any of these players but it sums up how things have been going lately. Even the Flames top defence pairing of Mark Giordano and Brodie have been guilty of some brain cramps in the defensive zone lately, perhaps a by-product of how much the team leans on them,

It's further indication that Calgary just seems off a little bit this year. This isn't just shooting percentages flattening out and expected regression in that area, but we're talking about guys making mistakes they normally don't make. Who knows why and I trust it's driving the coaching staff nuts.


Final Word

With exactly one-third of the season to go, the Flames have shown no signs of being a team that is capable of suddenly flicking a switch and finding the level of consistency in their overall game that will be required over the final eight weeks to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

With the Pacific Division's third place Anaheim Ducks on pace for 94 points, Calgary needs a 20-7-1 finish to get to that same total.

As mentioned, Nashville holds the second wild card spot and while they're on pace for just 89 points, that still requires a 17-9-2 finish from the Flames -- and you get the sense that required point total will ultimately end up being higher than that.

While the standings may not reflect it, the reality is if you consider how uneven this team has been playing, it's goaltending situation, etc., Calgary is in 'next year' country and the sooner coach Bob Hartley embraces this and starts coaching for the future, the better off the organization will be down the road. There are evaluations of borderline prospects that need to be completed and decisions made.

As for whether or not Hartley will be the coach of this team when that 'future' gets here, that's a discussion for another day. For those suggesting his message has started to fall on deaf ears, you certainly are starting to see the warning signs of that. And at least that theory makes more sense than the ridiculous referee conspiracy theory.

Bottom line is the Flames better clean things up for Monday afternoon or when the Ducks come calling to the Saddledome, it could be the type of Family Day beatdown that you won't want your kids to watch.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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4 comments:

  1. The power play being terrible, penalty killing being terrible, Gaudreau/Monahan being terrible on the road, players showing up late, AHL call-ups being not having trust. All points to lack of coaching. So, hopefully a change is made this off-season. Last years lucky run is over, time to make some tough decisions.

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    1. Those are fair comments. A turnaround in many areas of the team's overall game more than just wins/losses is certainly going to be needed or I agree the coach is not safe. Not sure a change is made in the off-season. I'm curious to see how the team finishes the season and if they clean up some areas where they should be better regardless of roster issues -- too much money tied up in bottom-six/third-pairing vets. He could very well start next season but the leash could be short and another poor start like this season may not be tolerated.

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  2. Just watch Furlatt ref any Flames game. The dude has had it out for us for a long long time.

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    1. Just like Denis Morel way back in the late 80s? I honestly don't get caught up in that stuff. Calgary generally takes very few penalties (fewest times shorthanded last year and were at or near that same ranking this year) and for me, they took several and too many out-of-character penalties last weekend regardless even if you exclude a few soft penalties. On the latter, I thought there were some soft penalties for both teams, similar to how the clampdowns on things like interference used to happen whenever the NHL would issue the reminder memo to referees. I will watch for Eric Furlatt games in the future and see if I pick up on any animosity he might have towards the Flames and/or Bob Hartley.

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