Thursday, March 01, 2018

Rocky Mountain Meltdown: Eight Things Required for the Flames to Make the Playoffs

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Rock bottom.

This is what it looks like. This is how it feels.

In the mile-high city on Wednesday night, Calgary's hopes for the 2017-18 season continued to careen down the mountainside like a runaway boulder.

Leading 2-0 approaching the midway point of the second period in a must-win game in Denver, the Flames looked in control. Then it all went to hell. An absolute implosion.

There is no other way to describe it. Everyone and everything played a part: Goaltending, defensive play, discipline, special teams, not to mention the head coach overseeing it all, who took his second bench minor in as many nights. It was a monumental collapse on all fronts that was both real and spectacular.


Turn Out the Lights

By the time the buzzer sounded to end the second period, Calgary had surrendered four unanswered goals and lost all sense of composure. Game over. Stick a fork in them. Done.

There would be no rallying back on this night. No fight from this fragile group. Only more of the same. A furious Johnny Gaudreau crossing the ice to head to the dressing room with 12 minutes left in the third period, tagged with a 10-minute misconduct on top of his absurd unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for embellishment, perfectly summed up the team's frustration.

That avalanche at the Pepsi Center didn't completely bury Calgary's playoff hopes, but those odds will soon be on life support if this enigmatic club doesn't figure things out fast.

This morning, the Flames woke up 11th in the Western Conference. The math still works. They still control their own destiny, but the wildly inconsistent play that has plagued this team for five months does not instill much hope that Calgary can get on that type of roll required to climb back into the top eight.

With 17 games to go, the Flames odds of winning the Stanley Cup continue to fall. Eight teams are ranked ahead of them in the Western Conference and considering only eight teams make the playoffs, you can do the math on what the oddsmakers think.

Can they turn things around? Sure.

Will they? Let's just say that if I'm Nicolas Cage on my honeymoon in Las Vegas and I'm sitting at the poker table, I'm not wagering Sarah Jessica Parker.


Eight Things That Must Happen


1. Return of Mike Smith

Jon Gillies and David Rittich entered this season with 80 minutes of NHL experience between them. Eighty minutes. That's it. That's not even enough time to get two-thirds through the movie Slap Shot. Now they've got the pressure of Calgary's post-season aspirations riding on their shoulders. It's not a scenario for success and you're starting to see it.

Being a great goaltender once every couple weeks is one thing. Playing at or near that same level when you're playing every other night and shouldering the responsibility of being a team's No. 1 is a completely different animal.

Take Rittich, for example. The Czech rookie was 5-0-2 with a 1.96 GAA and .938 SV% in seven starts while a back-up to Mike Smith. Since the Smith injury, his performance has dipped and the drop-off hasn't been subtle. In six starts, Rittich is 1-4-1 with a 4.41 GAA and .864 SV%.

The reality is Gillies, 2-1-0 in three starts with a 2.42 GAA and a .916 SV%, isn't the solution for this year either.

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The team's only hope and one they're clinging to at this at this point is that they get Smith back soon. The 35-year-old has been the backbone of this team all season. He has bailed them out time and time again, especially early in the season, stealing two points when the team wasn't good enough to win, and he'll need to have that type of impact again.

Fair or not fair, realistic or not realistic, they need Smith back and at that same level if they want a chance. The encouraging news is once they get him back healthy, the schedule sets up to allow the veteran to play a lot. There's only one set of back-to-back games the rest of the season. Every week features at least one two-day break.

Saving Smith for the playoffs is no longer a luxury this team can afford. The timeline is a mystery, but if Gilles, the presumed starter on Friday, can be good enough to knock off a Rangers team that has run up the white flag on the season, then you come right back with him one more time in a much difficult assignment on Monday in Pittsburgh.
   
Can Smith make it back by next Wednesday in Buffalo? By then, one week will have past from when he was spotted at the Saddledome earlier this week finally facing some shots. From that point, 15 games to go, you could roll with Smith in 14 of them if you need to, unless you somehow have the luxury of giving him a day off that final week.

His age? Doesn't matter now. Risk of being tired for the playoffs? Doesn't matter. This guy is your only chance. Get on that horse and ride it.


2. Go .667 During the Pac-Six

A critical stretch in the schedule begins on March 16 with a home game against San Jose. It's the first of six consecutive games against Pacific Division foes in which five are against teams ahead of them in the standings.

Over that 11-day stretch, they have two games with San Jose -- one in each building, a home game against Anaheim, a road game in Los Angeles, a road game in Vegas and there's also a road tilt against the Coyotes.

That's two weeks away still so it's premature to set the bar on a minimum number of points needed, but right now, winning four of those games and going .667 is looking like a must with winning in regulation time a point of emphasis, especially in the four-pointers against the Sharks, Ducks and Kings.


3. More From the Man Advantage

Going into the Dallas game, the Flames power play was on a sizzling 9-for-21 tear. It was never going to remain that hot, but it has to at least remain warm. Instead, it's suddenly ice cold again. Eleven times over the past two nights, Calgary headed onto the man advantage. Eleven times the team's best offensive players returned to the bench empty-handed. A bunch of those opportunities came at key moments in the game too where a goal might have sent the game down a different path.

They generated plenty of shots -- 17 of them on target including peppering Ben Bishop a dozen times in their six failed tries against Dallas, plus another boatload of opportunities that smashed off the end glass. Their nearly-two-minute, two-man advantage against the Stars looked dangerous, but we are well past the point of being able to settle for 'good process'. This isn't December. They need results and right now.

In particular, they need more in that scenario from Sean Monahan.

While Matthew Tkachuk and Dougie Hamilton have been lighting it up recently with the extra man, Monahan had gone 38 games without sniping a power play goal when he swept in a centering pass from Johnny Gaudreau on Feb. 22 in Arizona. The next game, a shot from Michael Stone glanced off him and in.

But where is that patented 10-15 foot one-timer? The lethal release that has been his calling card since entering the league? It's been a long time. Too long. Maybe he’s just not getting the looks, but this guy has proven to be deadly from the low slot and we haven’t seen enough of that lately.

For the last four-plus months of last season, Calgary's power play operated at nearly a 25 percent clip. The Flames need to get back to near that number for the final six weeks.


4. Make Home-Ice Great Again
 
This club's road record this season has been out of this world. If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s, Calgary boasted some damn good teams and none of them were as successful in opposition barns as this year's club, which is 18-10-5.

But the inevitable speed wobble has finally hit. Regulation losses in three of their last four and the next stop is at the harrowing PPG Paints Arena in where the Penguins just had an 11-game winning streak snapped. It isn't getting any easier.
   
To counter that, the focus must now shift back to 555 Saddledome Rise. Calgary needs to turn around its embarrassing 14-14-4 home record. There is no margin for error now. There are nine home games left and I'd suggest they need to win at least seven of them. That's a pretty big ask considering they've only won two of the last nine home games.

If atmosphere is to blame and they are a group that needs outside assistance to get revved up for a game, the tranquil library-like setting we're used to shouldn't be an issue coming up:
  • New York on a Friday night. Original six teams always travel well when it comes to fan support and the booze should be flowing to kick off the weekend.
  • Islanders on a Sunday sounds like the weekend edition of the Wild on a weekday, but kids can be noisy and there should be plenty of them. 
  • After that, the Oilers, Sharks and Ducks visit in succession -- two wicked rivalry games in there that always get fans worked into a lather, along with another key divisional clash.
  • The rest of the way, there a couple more Saturday night games. By the time Columbus visits on a Thursday night, it will be March 29. By then, if that game ends up being vital, the atmosphere should come built-in.

The issue of course is Calgary's propensity to face-plant in those big moments in front of their ticket-buying supporters. That's a habit they need to stop cold turkey. Eighteen points available at home. Picking up at least 14 points are a must. Might even want to try for 15.

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5. Vintage 79

The hot car back in the year '79 was a Trans Am or Camaro. Rocking the music charts at No. 1 was My Sharona. Attracting the most viewers on television was Three’s Company and the electronics the kids were going crazy over was the Intellivision game system.

Great memories.

Even better memories for Calgary come from jersey No. 79 and the impact it has had in the past.

Sidelined day-to-day at the moment with an upper body injury, the Flames badly need Micheal Ferland not just back in the line-up, but back in the form he showed in the first half of this season.
 
Officially, Ferland has been absent the past three games. However, he’s been missing from the offence for far longer. No points in his last seven games and just one goal in his last 19, that's not good enough. As one of four 20-goal scorers on this team, Ferland is a key offensive cog that will be counted on to help carry this team down the stretch.

When healthy, do you re-unite him with Gaudreau and Monahan? That depends where you come out on Sam Bennett. If that's the only place you think you can maximize your return on Bennett, maybe it's Ferland on the port side with Mark Jankowski.

Either way, you need him in your top-nine somewhere -- skating, playing physical and firing that puck. You need the whole package that makes Ferland such an alluring and tantalizing talent.

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6. More Killer Instinct

It's been a knock on this team all season. Playing down to the level of the opponent. Can't put teams away when they have a chance. The lack of killer instincts exists in four forms:

(a) Taking Advantage of a Lesser Opponent

No more over-respecting the opponent. This is a team that needs to believe in themselves, that they're playoff-worthy and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and then go out there and dictate the game.

Sure, the New York Rangers are still an NHL team and they have some talented young players who are playing loose and with no pressure, but remember also that Friday's opponent is out of playoff contention. Calgary needs to start fast, score first and then step on their throat.

It doesn't matter if you're playing out the string like New York is, the line-up is still made up of pro athletes who hate to lose. However, how much fight do the players have deep-down if management has already admitted openly to the public that they've given up on this season. If you can get up early on teams like the Rangers, you might not see the same level of desperation as you would from other teams with something on the line.

Same thing next week when Calgary travels into Buffalo and Ottawa. Massive games for the Flames, not so much for the other teams. Same thing applies to the two games remaining with Edmonton. Same thing with the two games to go with Arizona.
 

(b) Don't Let Teams Back in the Game

When you do get up by one goal in a game, you need to stay aggressive and get that important next goal. If you're up 2-0, don't sit back and try to hold onto that lead, try to make it 3-0.

Far too often, when Calgary has a team down, they let them back up off the canvas. Don't let them hang around, take away their will by scoring early and often and staying relentless. As they say in football, the only thing 'prevent defence' prevents is victories.


(c) Eradicate the Late Goal

Too often, Calgary has given up a goal late in a period, undoing their work over the previous 18 minutes. Those goals are called back-breakers for a reason. It’s because they are painful ones to surrender. It often shifts the momentum in a game and gives the opponent a new life.

The Flames need to treat those final few shifts late in a period with greater urgency while also being smart and not making that risky play or decision that could be costly.


(d) Take Advantage of Back-up Goalies

The other recurring theme this year (and throughout this franchise's existence) is how great the opposition back-up goalie has played.

A benefit of often having teams arrive at the Saddledome on the back-end of back-to-back games, Calgary faces a lot of back-up goaltenders.

Yet back-up after back-up after back-up have turned in Carey Price impersonations against the Flames. Calgary can't let that happen. They have to make life difficult on the opposing goaltender.

Traffic, screens, get to the greasy areas. Enough with the muffins being lobbed from the blue line, hammer some slap shots on goal in hopes of generating rebounds and deflections. Wreak havoc. There is a reason they're not the starter. Make things uncomfortable and shoot to score, not just shoot.


7. Scratch out Points

Like Groundhog Day, Flames players and fans have watched the same thing happen repeatedly on the out-of-town scoreboard lately. The Kings tie the game with 11 seconds remaining, then win it in overtime. Anaheim picks up one point with two goals in the final minute of the third period. It seems that nightly, teams around them are finding ways to scratch out extra points, Calgary needs to start doing the same.

In the last 13 overtime games Calgary has played, they've left that second point on the table in nine of them. Overtime used to be the Flames strong suit. For a while, they were the best in the league at resolving games in extra time. That's no longer the case. Only four times since mid-November have they emerged from a 60-minute plus effort with both points. That's not good enough. They need to get back to their earlier level of domination or close to it.

Meanwhile, the Flames also need to do a better job of scratching out points in games they're currently losing in regulation. Examining the six regulation losses in their last 11 games, in five of those games, they either led (three of them) or were tied (two of them) in the second period.

They've got to find ways to seal the deal or at least get one point in those games. Right now, Calgary is leaving rinks with zero points while in games involving the California teams they're battling with, three points are being divvied up.

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8. Better Line-up Selection/Deployment

Glen Gulutzan is taking a lot of heat from fans and given the team's disappointing position in the standings, you can understand why. Taking bench minors on consecutive nights would suggest he's feeling that heat also.

One of the most common criticisms is his personnel choices and how he deploys his players. While everyone is going to have their own ideas on lines, there are a few situations to monitor.
 
The Chris Stewart pick-up by GM Brad Treliving was a no-risk roll of the dice. Don't make it a risk by overplaying him. If he looks like a fourth liner, then use him as that. If he's not even that, then don't keep running him out there.

He hasn't had a practice with the team yet, so it's too early to abandon the experiment, but the leash needs to be relatively short with this guy who is on an expiring contract and owed nothing. At this point, from what we've seen in two very small samples, fourth line is the spot at best.

Curtis Lazar has been a disappointment, but he should not be sitting in favour of Tanner Glass. Lazar has been serviceable on the fourth line and he's been better in the second half. While 'serviceable' is not the most flattering of adjectives and is not one you'll ever read on anyone's Tinder profile, if he beats the alternatives and it could be argued that's the case, then you leave him in the line-up.

Newly acquired center Nick Shore is going to get a chance to play, but it's fair to be skeptical of what impact he will have given he was acquired for a seventh round pick. If Stewart is like grabbing something from the free box at a garage sale, the Shore pick is grabbing something from the '5 cents' box. Does he spell off Matt Stajan on occasion, or bump Stajan to the wing? Stay tuned. But like Stewart, now is not the time to over-experiment.

When Ferland is back, put Ferland or Bennett on the top line, put the other on the third line alongside Jankowski and hope that whoever rounds out that line can help that trio get going because only getting production from the top six down the stretch isn't going to suffice.

Prospect Andrew Mangiapane is the most talented of the other third line options, but going pointless in 10 NHL games didn't help his cause and now he's back in Stockton and at this moment is not an option. I wouldn't be surprised if Kris Versteeg lands there when he's ready to go, but he's missed over two months to injury and isn't a speed burner to begin with.

Gulutzan can only do so much, it's on the players to execute. But it's his job to put the pieces at his disposal in the right places and the last couple nights, both losses, it could be argued he never got it right.


Final Word

If 95 points is a reasonable target to qualify for the post-season, the Flames need to win 11 of their final 17 games. That's a big ask. Doable, but it will require a string of consistent play, this from a team plagued by inconsistent play all season.

Can the team turn it around on a dime? It seems unlikely, but the window is at least open to generate some momentum. Three of the next four games are against so-called beatable teams. But the Rangers, Senators and Sabres won't be beatable if you assume they'll be beatable.

Again, it's about killer instinct. It's going out and taking six points out of these next four games because you're the team that needs them more. That's the first step. It's a must. Get on a little bit of a roll before you face the Islanders and Oilers at home. Then that could be two more wins. 

If you can grab 10 of 12 possible points over the next six games, you're probably back in a playoff spot heading into that crucial six-game stretch against the Pacific.

But one step at a time and that first step goes Friday night.

The boulder running down the mountainside is picking up speed and Calgary needs to stop it ASAP -- and stopping something with that much momentum isn't going to be easy. It may take a 6-foot-6 goaltender playing the game of his life. Over to you, Jon Gillies.




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.

3 comments:

  1. I've given up on them. They could conceivably win 6 or 7 in a row and break even the rest of the way, but I don't think they have it in them this year. Too many things need to go well and one of them is a magical improvement in the coach's line-matching skills and player utilization. The players could get there in spite of the junior league "stand still and wait for a short sure pass in the D zone" system they've been taught, but right now they don't seem to be willing to engage and take a hit in order to come up with the puck or make a play. Unless that changes, they're done.

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  2. Great article. Alright, we know what it's gonna take, now let's see what happens. Where's my popcorn?

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  3. this is the coolest hockey players I've ever seen, they play very accurately and can perfectly play in the attack and defense

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