When the Calgary Flames took a break while their captain headed off to the All-Star game, they were standing strong above the Northwest Division with roughly a 10-point cliff for any competitors to climb in order to catch them.
Then the walls came crashing down. Since then, the Flames have gone 10–10–3 and have seen their lead cut to just three points. That’s basically .500, on par with teams such as Ottawa and St. Louis (who they just lost to).
Not helping this was the plague of injuries that hit them. At one point, Calgary’s third, fourth, and fifth highest scorers (Todd Bertuzzi, Daymond Langkow, and Rene Bourque) were out of the line up due to injury.
Bottom line, my precious Flames have not been burning as brightly or fiercely as I would like.
However, not all is lost. Few teams can outgun the Flames, who have burned the opposition a total of 233 times, and Kiprusoff can still steal games just as well as any goalie in the NHL.
I still hold out hope that come playoff time, and with the return of Bourque and Bertuzzi (hopefully in time for the playoffs), they will rediscover that spark and make a definite impression in the post-season.
That being said, I will take a look at the possible match-ups for the Flames in the first round, and give my analyses and predictions.
Calgary vs. Columbus
These two teams have split the three games that they have played right down the middle. Or at least, as close as you can come to it in today's NHL. Calgary won the last two meetings, but one was in a shootout.
Led by Rick Nash and Steve Mason, with a supporting cast the likes of RJ Umberger and Kristian Huselius, Columbus could give any team a run for its money in a single game.
But Calgary's physical play and phenomenal scoring depth will wear them out fast over the course of a series.
Calgary in six.
Calgary vs. Edmonton
So far, this series is also split down the middle, with another shootout win going to Calgary. The only difference is that the Flames lost two of four, rather than one of three.
Once again the Flames have the edge on scoring and depth, but expect the Oilers to play just as physically in what would be (as always) an epic Battle of Alberta.
Kiprusoff will be solid, and will give the Flames the solid goaltending they need to deal with the Oilers in their own end.
Calgary in five.
Calgary vs. Nashville
Calgary has dominated the season series, winning all four games. However, not one win has been easy. The only game that was won by more than a single goal featured a four goal third period and a hat trick by the Flames captain, Jarome Iginla.
Given the fact that the season series was a sweep, I was almost tempted to assign the same result to the post-season series. But considering the closeness of every single game, I thought the better of it.
Calgary in five.
Calgary vs. St. Louis
Up until Saturday, the Flames had beaten St. Louis in every game by a combined total of six goal over three games. All that changed with two goals 51 seconds apart and a third-period loss for Calgary.
St. Louis also played giant killers against San Jose last week, slapping them with a 3-1 loss. However, isolated performances do not win series, and the Blues won't go the distance against the Flames if it comes to seven game series.
Calgary in six.
Up until this point, my match-ups have been based on my hope that Calgary remains in the division lead and lands third place in the West.
Unfortunately, given the recent play of a piping-hot Vancouver team, and the dismal performances of the Flames in last couple weeks, this may not be realistic.
Therefore, I will also acknowledge that the Flames could end up anywhere between sixth and third, creating the possibility of them playing Chicago or Vancouver.
Calgary vs. Chicago
In four games this season, the Flames have managed just one point against the Hawks. This fact alone terrifies me. That and the five Hawks with 20 or more goals this year. Oh, and also the knowledge that both goalies can win a playoff series for their team if they get hot.
The only hope is the Hawks' dismal play of late (3-7-3 in the last 13). All the same, I feel that the Flames should be able to beat them on an even playing field, they just haven't done it yet. I'm gonna give this one to the Flames.
Calgary in seven (double OT)
Calgary vs. Vancouver
As much as it pains me to say this...I don't like Calgary's chances. Especially with their play of late. Out of five games, the Flames have only lost one in regulation, which says good things. But good play down the home stretch is a prerequisite for playoff success (just ask the Sharks), and while the 'Nucks have definitely had that, Calgary has not.
Vancouver has finally started clicking on all cylinders, and despite a slip up against Phoenix (ouch!), they still look like one of, if not THE most dangerous teams in this league.
If Calgary is going to win this series, the defense will have to develop some serious chemistry, and Kipper had better be on his game.
But once again, Vancouver is just as good in both categories. So Calgary would have to win by sheer firepower, but I don't even know if that is enough to beat Luongo when he is on his game.
Vancouver in 7...(tear)
Calgary has some work to do if they want to make a serious impact in the post-season, but I believe Keenan can get the boys in shape, and there is simply too much veteran presence on the team to allow them to stay in a slump for too long. Unless disaster strikes, they should make it at least out of the first round.
The addition of Olli Jokinen has added a piece of the puzzle that, honestly, I didn't think was necessary before the deadline, not that I didn't approve. If Bertuzzi and Bourque can get healthy and back on their games in time for the post-season...well...picture this:
Cammalleri (35g 37a), Jokinen (29g 25a) and Iginla (31g 52a)
Bourque, Langkow and Bertuzzi
Moss, Conroy and Glencross
All of these players have 35 points or more, something not even the high-scoring Red Wings can claim.
Adding Jordan Leopold was supposed to shore up the defense. As far as I am concerned, it hasn't worked.
On paper, the lines are incredibly strong; Leopold, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Adrian Aucoin, Cory Sarich, Mark Giordano, with Adam Pardy and James Vandermeer to draw on if need be.
Unfortunately, the defense just hasn't been getting it done in front of Kipper, and they need to be much better if they want to win a series against Vancouver, Chicago, or San Jose and Detroit.
Kipper needs to do what we all know he can, and all know he sometimes doesn't. He can steal any series from any team, but hopefully he won't have to...