Stretch preview (Part I)

Jean Lefebvre
February 24 2010 08:00AM

As quick as you can say Mats Zuccarello Aasen, the Olympics will be over and we will be returned to our regularly scheduled National Hockey League programming.

In Calgary, that means the analysis of the Ales Kotalik Era at the Saddledome will begin anew and the fretting about the Flames' fate will regain momentum.

The big-picture questions over the remaining 20 games are a doubel feature: Can the Flames make the playoffs? Is making the playoffs a worthwhile exercise if it means a first-round meeting with either Chicago or San Jose?

Since replacing Colorado and Vancouver with Norway and Germany the rest of the way (which would not only dramatically improve the Flames' chances at winning the Northwest Division but it would make Jarome Iginla the favourite to win the Rocket Richard Trophy) seems out of the question, the Flames will apparently have to do things the hard way.

How hard that hard way is depends on your vantage point and whether you tend to see the Gatorade bottle as half full or half empty.

The defeatist will point out half of Calgary's remaining games are against a division leader or co-leader. A sunny-dispositioned sort will counter that the Flames have eight dates with clubs currently out of a playoff position ans that seven of those games are against teams that are within slashing distance of the Flames (two with Detroit, one with Anaheim and four with Minnesota).

Others in this space will go more deeply into the numbers about the stretch run, but here's a simplistic view of things. Let's start by examining the schedules of the Western Conference's peloton — seven teams separated by seven points from seventh to 13th place.

Here's the breakdown, with "GR" being total games remaining, "vs. P" being games remaining against the rest of the peloton, "vs. NP" being games against clubs currently out of a playoff position and "Vs. DL" being games against division leaders.



A couple of knee-jerk reactions to those figures and other stretch-run factors:

1) Given the huge difference in strengthof finishing schedule and the fact there are no head-to-head meetings left, the Flames would seem hard-pressed to catch the Predators for seventh place.

2) There are 26 games remaining between the teams sardined from seventh to 13th and the results of that round-robin tournament will obviously go a long way towards determining who gets to dance with the Blackhawks and Sharks in the first round.

3) The Flames have nine home games remaining compared to 12 for the Predators, Stars, Red Wings and Ducks. Only the Blues, who like the Flames have actually been better on the road, have fewer home-ice dates left on the docket (eight) than Calgary.

4) We're probably past the point of no return when it comes to expecting the Detroit Red Wings to suddenly revert to being the Detroit Red Wings again. The Motowners were 3-4-4 in their final 11 games before the break and, even more disturbingly for the once-hermetically sealed club, the Wings allowed 30 or more shots in nine of 12 games before the hiatus. If not for the emergence of Jimmy Howard between the pipes, the Wings would already be cooked.

5) Speaking of netminders, the Flames and Ducks are the two Western Conference aspirants with masked men who were in action during the Olympics. What effect will that have on the race, especially given that neither Miikka Kiprusoff nor Jonas Hiller (who's now backed up by the very leaky Vesa Toskala instead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere) figures to get many breathers the rest of the way?

6) The very last game of the 2009-10 regular season involves a peloton team — Anaheim. The Ducks are playing the Edmonton Oilers that April 11 night and wouldn't it be morbidly interesting if that result has life-or-death implications on one of the other teams, specifically the Flames?

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Lefebvre is in that awkward stage of hockey following -- old enough to fondly remember the Cleveland Barons and too set in his ways to accept charity points and games where there's a winner but apparently no loser. As a long-time ink-stained wretch, he's also a firm believer in the old Bobby Knight quote about journalists: "All of us learn to write in second grade, but most of us go on to better things."
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