Consternation or Evolution
Are the Flames Gearing Up for the Playoffs?
April 3, 2008
A nerve wracking finish to a hockey team's playoff hopes is a great and exhilarating thing . once it's over, once it's successful, and both participants and fans are discussing it over cold ones either the next day or in cutoffs on a lake dock.
While the event is actually playing out it's pretty much no fun for anyone.
Tonight the Calgary Flames take to the ice in the Twin Cities taking on their division rivals; the Minnesota Wild. It's a classic set up where the outcome of the game is paramount both for upward and downward implications for the last remaining squad from Alberta.
A win of any fashion and the Flames can not only clinch a playoff spot but also start to look to Vancouver and their last regular season contest as an exciting chance to put a bullet in the arch rival Canucks while possibly securing an improbable comeback in clinching the division crown and home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
A regulation loss and the opposite rings true the Flames don't clinch without help, they are dust for the division lead, and will have to go to Vancouver and play for their very lives.
On the under card a chance that the Flames bow themselves, but make the playoffs anyway if things go right on the out of town scoreboard.
If that don't tighten up the old O-ring I'm not sure what will.
Fans gets spoiled easy, so with that it's certainly expected that the shear exuberation that should be felt with such monumentous games to play may be a tad bit misplaced given the expectations of the local hockey club. However, it's not that large a stretch to recant seven years of nary a big game to play and the necessity to just cherish moments like these in a 30 team circuit that only graduates just over 50% each year.
The situation is brought to you by a two game hitch in the Flames giddy up down the stretch, that being a squeaker loss at home to the Oilers and then a blow out loss in Vancouver that actually tricked those of the land of rain into thinking the sputtering Canucks were back on track.
Could this last game mentioned, the stinker in Vancouver, be the turning point on a season should the Flames make it to the dance? A line in the sand where an inconsistent head scratcher of a hockey team found its way just before the playoffs?
It could be and here is why.
Two subtle yet important events transpired on that frightful night in Vancouver, events that could change the makeup and disposition of the Calgary Flames both tonight and into the playoffs should they survive to play into mid April.
One, the death of Daymond Langkow's father in law, and then first period injury to Craig Conroy, thrusted ample chaos up the middle for all four forward lines. When the dust settled Matthew Lombardi was given more of an offensive role, fresh off a number of solid weeks centering a new and effective checking line. In Edmonton on Tuesday, with Conroy still missing, Lombardi centered the second line with Kristian Huselius and Owen Nolan, a line that effectively won the team the game.
Craig Conroy skated yesterday leading one to think he will either return the lineup tonight, or on Saturday in Vancouver. Does Keenan put things back as they were, with Lombardi the pivot on the third line between Stephane Yelle and Wayne Primeau or does Conroy fall back? Does he attempt three scoring lines to create greater flow on the roster, or change midstream in each and every game when he determines which of his second line centers in on? Some interesting options to mull.
Another interesting subplot in the same roster point was the second half of the game use of Dustin Boyd in Edmonton. Keenan moved Boyd up for shifts with the second and first line in the final period and a half and the young Timberlake look alike was effective on the cycle both setting up and gaining chances to score himself.
The second year pro has good wheels and is showing some increased strength against NHLers, but hasn't had a chance to show his stuff of late as he's either been chewing popped corn, or getting limited ice time with skill challenged players like Eric Godard at his flank.
Teams that have moved up the standings in the past few seasons have done so on the backs of rapid improvement from young players playing beyond their years. You go into a season with a group of veteran players that generally produce to the level expected those extra goals or minutes from the unexpected quite often separate the good from the great when the calendar turns to April.
If Keenan can factor Lombardi and Boyd into the top six mix the Flames may finally be getting the consistent depth up front to play the aggressive fore-check style that has them on the right side of the scoreboard more often than not.
Teacher's Pet Gets Walked
The second event from Vancouver was Keenan calling out principally Jarome Iginla and then later Dion Phaneuf for a lack of discipline. Along with Miikka Kiprusoff, the two are the Flames star players but have received very little attention from the head coach all season regardless of the team's on ice fortunes. On Sunday the Flames took ample penalties in retaliation to Canuck agitators, and Iginla was up front and center in leading the way to the penalty box.
By calling out his captain, Keenan may have tapped the rest of the roster into line as they see some equity in the way the team is handled, and perhaps greater cohesion going forward. Hard to wallow in your own self pity if Mr. Flame is also getting some criticism for not sticking to the game plan.
And in a determined and focuses #12 and the Flames may be setting up for an exciting finish.
Tonight will be another barometer in determining whether these factors have created a blip on the radar, or actual evolution of a hockey club gearing up for the playoffs.
Four days six teams two failures and a division crown all to be determined.
It doesn't get any better than that that is if things go your way. Otherwise nobody will want to talk about it, not today, not tomorrow, and certainly not in the summer.