Looking ahead to the Calgary Flames' season schedule, one could easily contend that there are some serious challenges ahead. Sure, the club has new faces, a shake-up in management and a new jersey, but they are essentially competing for one of only four playoff positions and have to battle some fierce conference rivals in order to make the cut.
To further complicate the matter, the Flames have been hit with an increase of back-to-back series for a total of fifteen this year; that's up from ten for the last campaign and one of the highest counts in the league for the current season.
January will be a big month for the Flames, with four back-to-back games in just three weeks -- all on the road -- however, the biggest challenge for the Flames may be just ahead on the schedule, as they face four conference contenders in six days, three of which require travel. Back-to-back games against St. Louis and Edmonton, followed by the next series of Colorado and Detroit suggest a tough road ahead.
The busiest month for the Flames in the 2002-2003 season was February with three back-to-back series. In those six games, spanning 18 days, the team was able to break even with two wins, a tie and overtime loss to get six points. Overall, on those two-in-two situations, the team was a dismal 4-13-3, escaping with only 13 points out of 40. As 18 of those games were on the road, one would expect that the record might be suffering from a lack of home ice advantage. Surprisingly, all four wins came on the road.
Four games out of the 30 will be played on home ice for the Flames, twice as many as last year.
With 60 points on the line, 44 of those points against teams in the team's conference, Calgary's crew is really going to have to improve over last year's overall effort. It will be nice if the Flames can capitalize on games against the Rangers and Islanders to get those 'free' out-of-conference points, but it will be essential to find victories in games against Nashville and Columbus. They will also have to be mindful of games against teams like Minnesota and San Jose, who face the Flames twice each in the second game of a series.
The battle of Alberta will also be tainted this year, as Calgary will have to face St. Louis at the 'Dome prior to their next-night trip to Skyreach, and the Oil will face Vancouver at the Garage before making their way down to Cow-town in December.
Some optimism can be found, though, in the improvement that the Flames saw under the direction of Sutter. Prior to his arrival, the Flames were only able to capture two points out of twelve in the form of a tie and an overtime loss, a staggering low 16.7%. When Sutter took the reigns the team was able to improve to 39.3%, and at one point went on a 4-3 run. In the final stretch of back-to-back series in the season, Sutter showed that character and grit could help a lower-ranked team to overcome obstacles, and the team locked down 12 of 20 points for 60%.
If the Flames can hit numbers like that through the course of this season, a return to the playoffs is certainly possible. A return to their pace in the first half however, will seal a very familiar fate.