The Flames and the Playoff Hunt

January 24th, 2011 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Flash back to December 21st …

Henrik Karlsson is named a game star as the lanky backup goaltender put in yule-men work for the visitors in a 3-1 setback in Columbus, stopping 34 of 37 shots to be his team’s best player. The loss, the Flames third in a row has essentially ended their season.

The team sat 14-18-3, four games under .500 and in a world of hurt. The Columbus loss punctuated a skid that had them badly out shoot the Minnesota Wild in a home and home series but lose both games. It wasn’t very difficult to scream “blow it up!” on that night, and I’m guessing many Calgary fans did just that.

Today? The Flames are 22-21-6 as they look to run their win streak to three games tonight against the Nashville Predators. A win coupled with a St. Louis loss in Denver would have the Flames move from 14th in the West to 11th, a visage that is much more palpable in terms of teams to jump to get back into a playoff spot.

In those 33 days the Flames have gone 8-3-3 for 19 points in 14 games, a winning percentage of .679 (showing that win two of every three clip the team keeps harping on), and the 6th best team in the NHL in that time frame. Small sample sizes can be dangerous when it comes to sports analysis, but those 14 games almost represent 1/5 of a hockey season. It’s not insignificant.

The Flames since that night are playing at a strong playoff team pace.

The depressing fact? In a 30 team league a run as strong as the aforementioned hasn’t gained them any ground in the West (still sit 14th), and has only had them leap frog two teams overall. But they have closed the gap considerably on the teams above them.

Of the teams within striking distance only the Minnesota Wild have a winning record over this time span. The Avalanche, Kings, Blues and Jackets have fizzled along at an average win percentage of .445. The Flames have made up 7 points on the Avalanche alone in the 14 games.

So what does this mean?

To be honest the buffet table has a little something for everyone.

The gap closure on teams like Colorado, Columbus, St. Louis and L.A. are real, and significant. They can start passing teams now with continued good play, and perhaps get themselves back into that bubble position for March 1st and the stretch drive.

If you’re a glass half empty person, however, there is still plenty of ammunition. The Flames were a .500 hockey team or worse until Saturday night in Vancouver. That’s a pretty huge sample size of mediocrity, suggesting the recent run of finding points is merely an aberration, and an unlikely one to continue.

I’d also point out the futility of a run as strong as this doing so little to change the actual standings as proof positive of just how tough it is to turn a season around and make up ground in a parity stricken NHL.

But lets bring the realist into the discussion …

The Ottawa Senators have essentially announced their season is over, and they are going to retool, a bold statement that personally I applaud. They exist in a hockey market that understands team building so they had the stones to go out and call a spade a spade.

In Calgary however, this recent string withstanding, the Flames’ brass has been reluctant to make such a call, and the players and coaches have both verbally and optically done anything but give up the ghost on 2010-11.

So lets pretend this miracle happens. They win tonight to move up three spots … the clubs above them continue to sputter … the Flames move into 9th spot before the trade deadline, hold off on the firesale and stand pat with their roster … get a few bounces down the stretch and squeak into the playoffs in the 8th position and get the Canucks in the first round.

Does the franchise really take any steps forward by being first round fodder?

Who outside of Mark Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester and Mikael Backlund would gain any career building experience from a playoff series this spring?

With so many teams still in the hunt the Flame’s organization could do so much more with becoming the first attractive seller than any gains made by moving down the draft board and up the standings.

I give them credit for their recent efforts, I cheer the games as I’ve always done … but a little dark piece of me hopes they stumble and stumble soon so the real work can begin.

Sometimes you have to just grab that band-aid and rip. Might as well get it over with.

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