Man, I love my GPS navigation system.
But it has a flaw. The same bug can also affect our Stanley Cup playoffs GPS navigation system.
Allow me to explain.
Even though I almost always know exactly where I'm going -- I've lived in Calgary my entire life, after all -- I always punch in the address of my destination because I love that omniscient feeling of knowing how long it's going to take to get to a particular place.
But what I've discovered is sometimes the route that I normally travel, that familiar default path that first springs to mind, isn't always the best route. Sometimes there's another way to get to that location that is actually a shorter distance.
The last couple weeks, it's become the de facto number of points Calgary will need if they hope to make the post-season.
On the radio, on social media, even in the Flames dressing room, prior to this road trip, seemingly everyone was touting that 11 wins in their final 16 games is what would be required. After splitting the first two stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, that number has been updated to 10 wins over the final 14 games.
10-4, Over and Out
The reason so many disgruntled fans have already run up the white flag is that 10 more wins is a huge ask from a club that's been riding a roller coaster of inconsistency for five months. Heck, Calgary has won just five times in their last 14 games.
But, there's another way for the Flames to get to where they want to go. There's an easier way.
Where the glimmer of hope lies, in which it is possible Calgary can squeak in with just eight more wins, is by traveling to the Stanley Cup playoffs via a different route.
If you re-ask the question: Can the Flames go 8-6 to finish the season? A .571 winning percentage over the final month is a lot more doable than a .714 clip, which is what 10-4 works out to.
This shortcut to the post-season that most seem to be overlooking requires a change to the conventional route traveled. On my vehicle's navigation system, I would select 'view routes' and when it offers Pacific Division as the default, I would manually switch to the other option of 'Wildcard'.
Two Ways to Get There
To this point, most have been focused solely on a top-three spot in the Pacific as the only way in.
To be fair, it's always felt that way given how strong the Central teams have performed all season with the Chicago Blackhawks the only one out of that division's seven teams to have fallen out of it. Plus, there's history. Since the wildcard concept was introduced in 2013-14, seven of the eight wildcard spots have been swallowed up by Central teams.
With a mindset of top three in the Pacific or bust, the task becomes a daunting one. With the Ducks rolling, the Kings having an easy remaining schedule and the Sharks three points up and with two games in hand, that route is going to be a long distance to travel. If that was, indeed, the only route for Calgary to get to its desired destination, 10-4 probably would be required. Maybe even 11-3.
But upon taking a closer look, there is no longer any reason to anoint both wild card spots to the Central. In fact, it's quite possible that this season for the first time, both of those two extra playoff invitations could end up going to the Pacific.
Instead of traveling on the I-5 through California, trying to catch two of the Sharks, Kings and Ducks, it's time to take a different exit and head towards Texas, Colorado and Missouri.
What you'll find is just like on my vehicle's navigation system -- and this is the flaw that bugs me -- sometimes when you change from the default route, the distance to travel becomes shorter. Same thing for Calgary. No longer is 95 points the minimum requirement, go the wildcard route and 91 or 92 points could get you in.
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Zeroing in on the Central
Taking a closer look at the Central, the top three teams are distancing themselves from the pack. Nashville has won nine straight and are starting to separate themselves at the top. Winnipeg, winners of eight of their last 10, are locked into second. Minnesota, on a 7-2-1 tear, is tightening its grip on third. I don't envision much changing.
But it gets real interesting after that with Dallas, Colorado and St. Louis all competing for those two wild card spots against whoever doesn't finish second and third in the Pacific -- those runner-ups currently being Los Angeles and Calgary. If you pencil in the Kings and it's awfully tempting to do so when you look at their soft remaining schedule, now it comes down to four teams -- the Stars, Avalanche, Blues and Flames -- competing for the final wild card spot.
After examining the remaining schedules for those four teams, I can see as few as 92 points being sufficient to punch a ticket to Lord Stanley's party and getting in with that few points wouldn't be unprecedented.
While Calgary had 94 points last year, they would have still gotten in with 88 points. The season prior, that same 88 points would have been enough to land the second wild card spot. Three years ago it would have taken 96 points with Bob Hartley's Flames club grabbing the last spot with 97. But in 2013-14, the first season of the new playoff format, 92 points would have sufficed.
Breaking Down the Remaining Skeds
Here's a look at what could end up happening over the final four-and-a-half weeks. In this hypothetical scenario that isn't entirely unrealistic, Calgary would get in with 92 points. There are more points in there to be had too.
NOW | 68 gm, 33-25-10, 76 pts
Calgary's win over Buffalo on Wednesday was the first of four straight games against non-playoff bound opponents. The team hopes that timing is fortuitous and by the time the schedule takes a sharp turn and becomes more difficult, they might have Mike Smith back from his lower-body injury.
Worth noting is the Flames are done their season series with the three Central teams in which they're battling. No four-pointers with the Stars, Avs or Blues are left on the table.
Breaking it Down:
- The next three opponents in Ottawa, the New York Islanders and Edmonton, are all just playing out the string. These are points that Calgary has to have. PREDICTION: 2-1-0
- Next comes a six-game grind against the Pacific -- one at home and one on the road with San Jose, home to Anaheim, in Los Angeles. Also in that stretch are games on consecutive nights in Vegas and Arizona PREDICTION: 3-3-0
- Next is a three-game homestand in which Columbus, Edmonton and Arizona stop by the Scotiabank Saddledome for a visit. PREDICTION: 2-1-0
- Final two games are a one-off trip to Winnipeg then home to Vegas on final day of the season. By then, the Golden Knights should be in rest-the-regulars mode. Heck, the Jets might be in a similar spot. PREDICTION: 1-1-0
SEASON-END | 41-31-10, 92 pts
NOW | 67 gm, 37-24-6, 80 pts
While the Stars were six points clear of the Flames going into Wednesday night's games and were not really on anyone's radar as a candidate to miss the post-season, they're not as safe as you might think.
The Stars' have the most difficult closing schedule by far. I mean it's a killer. Ten of their final 15 games are on the road and only three are against non-playoff teams. That's a brutal grind even with a healthy Ben Bishop, which he is not. The Stars goaltender is out with a suspected knee injury and while not a long-term injury, his return date is not yet known.
Here are a couple of Ken Hitchcock quotes on the status of goaltender Ben Bishop: pic.twitter.com/PJVcMrQyJz— Mark Stepneski (@StarsInsideEdge) March 8, 2018
Look through Dallas' final 15 games and it's a lot easier to find nine losses than it is to find six wins. It's not inconceivable that they struggle to accumulate double digits in points over the duration of the season.
Breaking it Down:
- They have a much better home record (23-10-3) than road record (14-14-3), but they only have five games remaining at the American Airlines Center. The teams that come calling aren't lightweights either with four of them being Anaheim, Boston, Philadelphia and Minnesota. Vancouver is the only non-playoff team they get at home. PREDICTION: 2-2-1
- On Sunday, they begin a six-game road trip in Pittsburgh. The final stops in Winnipeg and Washington aren't any easier. Best chance to pick up points is their three-game tour of Eastern Canada in the middle -- back-to-back in Montreal and Toronto, then in Ottawa. PREDICTION: 2-4-0
- Their other four road games are a one-off trip to Minnesota and the always difficult Xcel Energy Center and then a trek through California to finish the season including Anaheim and LA back-to-back on the final two days of the season. PREDICTION: 1-3-0
SEASON-END | 42-33-7, 91 pts
NOW | 66 gm, 35-24-7, 77 pts
Colorado has had a great season. They're already 29 points better than a year ago and there are still 16 games to go.
While they have six non-playoff teams remaining on their schedule, five of them are division rivals so those games aren't going to be easy.
Their home-road splits are even with eight of each remaining.
Breaking it Down:
- The next two games present quite the contrast -- in Columbus to wrap up a road trip, then home to Arizona. PREDICTION: 1-1-0
- Next comes a heavy dose of Central rivals. First, a two-game trip into Minnesota and St. Louis. Then back home to host Nashville the next night on the back-end of games on consecutive nights. Next, Detroit visits, before wrapping up this segment in Chicago. PREDICTION: 2-3-0
- Six of the next eight games are against the best of the Pacific -- a home and home set with Vegas, the Kings both home and away, then stops in Anaheim and San Jose as well. PREDICTION: 2-4-0
- The other three are home games against Philadelphia and Chicago, squeezed into the middle of that heavy Pacific schedule, then the Blues on home ice. PREDICTION: 2-1-0
SEASON-END | 42-33-7, 91 pts
St. Louis Blues
NOW | 66 gm, 35-26-5, 75 pts
The Blues schedule isn't too bad, despite having more road games (9) than home games (7). That said, they're not exactly hot right now. St. Louis has struggled mightily lately going 2-6-2 in their last 10.
Of course, providing a hint as to where the front office had the club's playoff chances pegged, the Blues subtracted rather than added at the trade deadline, dealing away longtime centre Paul Stastny.
Breaking it Down:
- Next up is a three-game trip through California. PREDICTION: 1-2-0
- After its home date against Colorado, it is a string of original-six opponents -- versus the NY Rangers then on the road in Chicago. Next up, Boston visits the Scottrade Center. PREDICTION: 2-2-0
- Next is a five-game stretch against the Pacific with a game in Columbus mixed in. Visiting St. Louis is Vancouver and San Jose. Blues fly to San Jose and Arizona. PREDICTION: 2-2-1
- St. Louis finishes off the year with home games against Washington and Chicago and then a road tip to Chicago and Colorado on the final two days of the season. PREDICTION: 2-2-0
SEASON-END | 42-34-6, 90 pts
The sooner Flames fans turn their focus away from the Pacific Division, the faster their blood pressure will drop as you'll drive yourself crazy watching that out-of-town scoreboard and hoping for California losses.
Los Angeles has nine non-playoff teams remaining and six of those match-ups are at Staples Center. The way the Sharks and Ducks are playing, all of those teams look destined to finish with 95-plus points easily.
The opportunity to play past April 7 is still there for Calgary, but it's through the wildcard spot. While it's attainable, they still need to finish the season playing more consistently than they have thus far. Winning at least eight games will still likely be needed. But if they can play at the same high level that they have for the first two stops in this road trip, especially in that 5-1 trouncing of the Sabres on Wednesday, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Far from it.
Flames absolutely dismantling Buffalo. If they played with a hint of this same urgency and conviction in past meetings against also-rans and/or back-up goalies, teams would be chasing them for a playoff spot, not vice versa.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) March 8, 2018
Get in and even if you make it as the second wild card team, a first round showdown with Nashville is far from an automatic four-and-out. Calgary has matched up well with the Predators all season, winning two of the three meetings. The Flames have also enjoyed tremendous success in Nashville lately winning their last six trips to Tennessee. Bridgestone Arena is no Honda Center.
But there can be no let up. Not one bit. Calgary needs to continue to do all the good things they did in Pittsburgh and all the great things they did in Buffalo when they return to action on Friday night with another critical two points on the line in Ottawa.
If you're a season ticket holder, don't book that late-April vacation quite yet.
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 stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Rocky Mountain Meltdown: Eight Things Required to Make the Playoffs - It was an implosion. There's no other way to describe the second period in Denver that left Calgary reeling. Playoffs remain possible, but here are eight things that have to happen. (Mar. 1, 2018)
- Mid-Year Update of the Flames Top 20 Prospects - Who is the new No. 1? Who has graduated? Some prospects are climbing, others are falling. It's my bi-annual comprehensive look at the Flames system and who are the organization's top young players. (Jan. 28, 2018)