As the end of the season approaches, the race for first place in the Northwest division has seemingly narrowed. As of tonight’s games, Calgary has only a five point lead over Vancouver with one more game played, whereas only two weeks ago they still had a ten point lead over Vancouver.
In addition, though they have more points than fourth place Chicago, they have slipped even further behind Detroit, who they beat tonight 5-3 in Calgary, as they find themselves 15 points behind the defending Stanley Cup champions and 16 behind first place San Jose.
Consecutive losses to Carolina, Atlanta, and New Jersey last week threatened to unravel the team before the playoffs.
However, two wins against Detroit in the last two weeks and a victory against Dallas has hopefully righted the ship enough so that they will successfully maintain the division lead heading into the playoffs.
As the playoffs near, the strengths and weaknesses of the team have, and will continue to become, glaringly obvious.
The most important weakness that Calgary was unable to address by the trade deadline is the lack of a viable back-up for Miikka Kiprusoff. Curtis McElhinney has yet to show he is capable of playing in the NHL.
In five starts and ten total appearances for the Flames, he has 0 wins, a 3.78 GAA, and a save percentage of .882. In watching him play, he consistently gives up large rebounds that enable teams to score in bunches.
While Kiprusoff has shown time and again his ability to carry the team through the playoffs, he has always had experienced backups such as Jamie McLennan and Curtis Joseph to spare him at least a game in a hard fought playoff series.
Another weakness that will hopefully resolve itself is the number of injuries to key players. Rene Bourque isn’t expected to return until the very end of the season, having remained out of the lineup since injuring his ankle against the Minnesota Wild on February 19.
Mark Giordano would only make it back to the team if they played into May, meaning they’d have to make it through at least one round of the playoffs before he’d become a viable roster candidate.
Todd Bertuzzi hasn’t played since March 1 after requiring minor surgery on his injured left knee. Rhett Warrener remains on the Calgary roster but has yet to play after shoulder surgery. Wayne Primeau hasn’t played since December, and Andre Roy has missed the last two games as well.
However, a few of these players expect to be back come playoff time, so hopefully the injuries won’t cause the Flames any trouble once the season finishes.
Calgary, however, does have a few strengths to consider as it approaches the end of the season.
Miikka Kiprusoff has proven that he is capable of playing every game during the post season for the team, and they can count on him to keep them in each and every game they play, allowing them to concentrate on scoring without having to worry about their goaltending behind them.
In addition, Calgary has one of the most fast-paced offenses in the league (especially without Bertuzzi in the line-up) with Olli Jokinen, Jarome Iginla, and Michael Cammalleri leading the attack—three of the best scorers of the current NHL.
Their trade for Jokinen at the deadline will prove vital to their playoff chances, and Jokinen has already proven himself capable of performing with his linemates.
Of the teams in playoff contention (from San Jose to 12th place Dallas), Calgary has a positive or even record with seven teams and has only performed embarrassingly against Chicago, going 0-3-1 in the season series.
Should Calgary maintain the division lead, it would most likely face Edmonton or Columbus, two teams that it has performed well against.
Though the Flames lost to Edmonton at both ends of a home and home to start the season, they have won twice against the Oilers in the latter part of the season, and have also compiled a 2-1-0 record against Columbus.
Calgary should have no problem handling those two teams in a seven game series, in addition to the longer shots of Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, Minnesota, and Anaheim.
However, Vancouver could present a problem for Calgary, who struggled early in the season against Roberto Luongo. Also, should Calgary lose the division lead and face Chicago in the first round, Calgary will have to be incredibly worried—they have been unable to muster any appreciable offense this season against the Blackhawks.
The worst case scenario for the Flames would be to face Chicago in the matchup between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the first round. They would then face either Detroit or San Jose (depending on who maintains the No. 1 seed).
Tthough Calgary has performed well against both teams, the Flames would most definitely hope to face San Jose in the second round if only because Detroit seems to find a higher gear to take their game to when the playoffs arrive.
The best case scenario for the Flames would be to maintain the No. 3 seed and play the Edmonton Oilers as the No. 6 seed in the first round. Should Calgary win, they would face the Detroit Red Wings, who Calgary has performed well against this season.
Allowing San Jose and the winner between Chicago and Vancouver to beat one another up in the second round would allow Calgary an easier time in the conference finals, and the Flames could conceivably find themselves battling it out for the Stanley Cup against the winner in the East.
With ten games to go, there is a lot of hockey to be played and Calgary must play consistently to ensure themselves the best possible position heading into the playoffs.