A Tale Of Two Teams: Can The Calgary Flames Make The Playoffs In 2011?
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Turn back the clock and put yourself back where you were in September 2010.
What would you think if someone told you that by February 17, 2011, the Calgary Flames would be one of the hottest teams in the league?
Or that has-been Alex Tanguay would be tied for points with Patrick Marleau?
Or that the infamous Olli Jokinen would have 14 points over the past 10 games?
Or that Brendan Morrison, signed after the preseason, would be centering a line with Jarome Iginla?
Or that aforementioned captain Iginla, written off as "washed-up" by many, would be on pace for another point-per-game season (also closing in on his 1,000th career point)?
Or (and this is a stretch) that the Flames would be tied for the fourth seed in the Western Conference?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you either have an uncanny ability to predict the future or more faith in a faltering team than the vast majority of its most dedicated fans.
As recently as a month ago, the Calgary Flames were rotting away in the basement of the Western Conference, only taking consolation in the fact that they were still better than the Oilers. That once-legendary rivalry reached an entirely new low, with the only competition being for a better draft position.
Do you think the Calgary Flames will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011?
At least the Oilers fans had a future in Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle to look forward to, while the Flames' future looked about as warm and exciting as the average winter day in Alberta.
To make matters worse, Calgary's archrival No. 1b, the Vancouver Canucks, were running away as the best team in all of hockey. Rumours were swirling that fan favourite and city icon Jarome Iginla was packing his bags for California. GM Darryl Sutter was chased from the organization that he brought within one goal of the Stanley Cup, and left it in ruins to Jay Feaster, the same man who beat him in 2004.
Nothing was looking positive in Cowtown.
The offense was streaky, the defense was nowhere near as effective as its combined salary would suggest and special teams were anything but special. Any games they won were a result of good fortune and/or the spectacular game-stealing abilities of Miikka Kiprusoff. There was a collective sigh of resignation in the Calgary air.
What a difference a month can make.
Over the past 13 games leading up to the Heritage Classic, the Flames have picked up 22 out of a possible 26 points (10-1-2) and scored an average of 4.31 goals per game while allowing 2.46 goals per game. Their special teams have been much more effective as of late, with 12 power play goals during the streak and short-handed goals in the past two games.
In four weeks, the Flames have made a climb from 14th place in the Western Conference to the eighth seed, and their 68 points tie them with the four teams immediately above them in the standings (Nashville, San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas), so technically the Flames are in a tie for the fourth seed, good enough for home-ice advantage come playoff time.
As impressive as their streak has been, the fact that they have redeemed their season and brought themselves back into playoff contention is only half the battle for the Flames.
Seeing that a mere four points separate the fourth seed from the 11th seed in the West, there is no question that the Flames are right in the middle of what should be a wild race to the post-season, but the question is how well their chances stack up against their competitors.
If they are going to make the playoffs, they only have a legitimate shot at five of the eight berths. Vancouver is widely considered to be the best team in the NHL this season, and it holds a 15-point lead over the Flames heading into the fourth quarter of the season. Any chances of the Flames winning the division title over the Canucks is slim to none, so a top-three berth is impossible, barring a miracle.
This leaves four of the five Pacific Division teams (Phoenix, San Jose, Anaheim, Dallas and Los Angeles), division rival Minnesota, Nashville and Chicago as the other teams competing with Calgary for a playoff berth (I include only four of the Pacific Division teams because at least one of them is guaranteed a spot ahead of Calgary due to the default seed.)
Each of them has at least two games in hand due to the scheduling of the Heritage Classic. However, Calgary has momentum on its side, unlike several other teams in the race.
The Dallas Stars have been free-falling, dropping a large division lead and finding themselves fourth in their division with a record of 2-7-1 over the past 10 games. Injuries are making their situation even more difficult, with key players Brad Richards, Nicklas Grossman, and Jamie Benn out for the time being.
Their playoff aspirations are fading fast, and the Flames will have to capitalize on their decline. Their 7-4 win against the Stars in January propelled them into their playoff push, and after beating the Stars soundly on Wednesday night, the Flames are in a position to sweep the season series on March 9 with a win in Dallas.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been mediocre as of late, plagued by inconsistency. Their 64 points put them in range of the playoffs, but they have not played well against the other teams in the hunt, having dropped recent games to Calgary, Phoenix and Dallas.
Their schedule doesn't give them much to look forward to either, with upcoming games against the Penguins, Predators, Coyotes, and Wild to close out the month. The Flames have won two of the three meetings between the two teams this season, including the most recent one on February 7 and a 7-2 blowout in November.
They meet for the final time on March 2—a matchup between two of the top offensive teams in their conference. This game is definitely going to play a large part in shaping the playoff picture.
The Nashville Predators, having held the fourth seed for much of the second half of the season, have struggled recently. With the third lowest goal total in the Western Conference, their defense and goaltending has been winning them games in a streaky fashion, also picking up single points from overtime and shootout losses.
Calgary has also had their number as of late, winning games in both Calgary and Nashville on January 24 and February 1, plus their first meeting in October. If the Flames are able to keep up their momentum, they match up very favorably in the race against the Predators with one more meeting to go.
The other teams in the hunt, however, have been riding their fair share of momentum as well.
All three California teams have been winning games recently, with the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings being the only other teams that are as hot as Calgary over the past few weeks (aside from the New Jersey Devils). Calgary has lost close recent games to both Anaheim and Los Angeles in overtime and the shootout, respectively.
In fact, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Vancouver are the only teams that have beaten Calgary during the Flames' streak. Los Angeles leads the season series 2-1 against the Flames, winning both games by one goal. Calgary has two games remaining against the Ducks, having lost both of the first two in overtime.
The Flames will likely need to win these games to make the playoffs, but they've made it clear that they can hold their own against both teams.
Calgary and San Jose have had very similar stories over the past few weeks, climbing back into the playoff picture. The Sharks have been playing better defensive hockey, but they still have a shaky goaltending situation. Against an offense like Calgary's, they might run into problems.
The Sharks have been playing well, though and are riding momentum with an ability to win close games, especially on the road. Their upcoming meeting on February 25 could very well be a collision between two unstoppable forces. If Calgary can score as well as they have been, however, it's their game to lose.
The Flames have struggled this season against the Phoenix Coyotes, winners of five in a row. However, both losses came in a stretch in November that saw the Flames lose eight out of 10 games. With two upcoming meetings against an inconsistent and inexperienced (yet successful) Phoenix team, the Flames have a chance to tie up the series and collect what is effectively eight points in the process.
I should probably note that the five teams in the Pacific Division still have a slew of games against each other before the end of the regular season. It is highly unlikely that they will all be able to reach the playoffs, even though they are all solid teams with a shot.
In the end, the teams that play the best within the division will make it and all bets are off as to who can take control between now and April. As for the others, they won't have a chance if they lose the bulk of their divisional games. This is good news for Calgary, who will need all the help it can get down the stretch against these opponents.
Finally, we have the Minnesota Wild, a division rival who have quietly asserted themselves among the contenders in the Western Conference. The Wild were a nightmare for the Flames this season, winning the head-to-head series 4-2, including the most recent game on January 19, a 6-0 blowout. Six goals by the 25th-ranked offense in the entire NHL.
While Flames fans are glad that's over, the better news is that Minnesota has lost two games in a row, and most of their wins in the last month have been coming against weaker or non-playoff teams (Colorado, twice against St. Louis, Edmonton, Calgary [before its streak]).
An inability to win against good teams will cripple them, with the majority of their remaining games against teams above them in the standings.
Overall, the prospects look pretty good for the Flames in the race for a playoff spot. However, a return to the post-season after missing it in 2010 won't be easy for them either. The remainder of their season will feature important games against each of the Pacific Division teams, as well as Nashville and Chicago, each fighting for the same berths as the Flames.
The Heritage Classic will be an important game for both them and the Montreal Canadiens, and the outdoor elements won't show them any mercy to boot. Calgary also plays two games against the Canucks, who have dominated them this season, and two more against the Oilers, and there is no doubt that the Oilers will want to play spoiler on the Flames' season this time around.
Ultimately, the Flames will just need to continue to carry their momentum. If they do that, they will match up well against anybody. The only question is if they'll be able to do that.
Kiprusoff has proven in the past that he is very capable of carrying the team down the stretch, and when he is on his game the Flames always have a chance to win. Calgary is also relatively healthy, and gets a rest and a chance to recuperate thanks to the Heritage Classic. Whether a change of pace is a good thing or a bad thing for the Flames and their momentum, we will find out.
Now that the entire team is playing with a new-found confidence, all of the Flames' lines have been putting up points, particularly the Jokinen/Glencross/Moss combination, and the defense has been contributing on both ends of the ice.
For one of the oldest teams in the NHL in terms of age, this could be one last chance for a playoff run. If they can pull it off, there's always the chance that they could do some damage in this new age of parity in the league.
The facts all show proof that the Calgary Flames are definitely capable of being a playoff team, but it's going to be a wild race, and I for one can't wait to see it all unfold.
Go Flames Go!
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