April 05 2011 09:42AM
The Zombie Flames refuse to die despite repeated blows to the soggy cranium. As such, their playoffs remain undead and we the faithful are left hopefully refreshing nhl.com/scores every night. Tonight, chief post-season rivals Dallas and Chicago will each make up one of their games in hand on the Flames - Chicago in Montreal and Dallas versus Columbus.
Chicago has stumbled a bit recently with a couple of uninspired outings in Columbus and Tampa Bay. Despite their struggles, Chicago remains the best team in the league ostensibly fighting for a playoff spot. Although not the juggernaut they were last year, the Hawks have a +34 goal differential and one of the best possession rates in the NHL. Patrick Sharp, a non-trivial player at the top of the Hawks rotation, recently returned from injury which is bad news for Flames fans. On the plus side, Dave Bolland remains out after absorbing a cheap shot from Pavel Kubina about a month ago. His 15 goals and 37 points don't seem like too big of a loss, but the truth is Bolland is one of those players who is far more valuable on the ice than his counting stats suggest.
Joel Quenneville likes to give Toews and Kane the high ground in Chicago as much as possible. As a result, he tends to bury other portions of the forward line-up. Bolland has been that guy this year, with a ghastly zone start ratio of 34% (!!). To put that in perspective, Daymond Langkow had the lowest ZS for the Flames last year...at 47%.
Bolland's usage is therefore heavily skewed toward defensive/shut-down responsbilities. Without him, things get a bit more muddled, with the kid taking some tougher minutes. This probably wouldn't have been as big an issue for the Hawks last year when they had a guy like Ladd in the line-up. Alas...
Chicago is one point ahead of the Flames with two games in hand. They need just three points in their final four games to bar the Flames from the play-offs. Their schedule is no cake walk, however, with Montreal tonight and back-to-back contests with Detroit to end things off.
The Big D
In contrast to Chicago, I consider Dallas to be the weakest of the post-season hopefuls, at least as far as it goes here in the west. The Flames are a middling squad this year, but I'd consider it a miscarriage of justice if the Stars made the dance in their stead (much like Colorado last year) because, outside of a few bright spots, Dallas just isn't a good team.
They rode some unreal percentages to a very nice record through the first half of the year and were even challenging for first in the conference before the wheels predicatably fell off. The bright spots I mentioned this year have been Kari Lehtonen (always good, but managed to stay mostly healthy as well), Brad Richards and the emergent Jamie Benn, who I suspect will be the best forward on that club in short order. Mike Ribeiro has been not-terrible in a shut-down type role this year as well, which is surprising.
(Aside - Loui Eriksson is frequently mentioned by people as an underrated Selke nominee type, but I don't see it. This year, for example, he's played middling competition in aggregate, started more often in the offensive zone and is still underwater in terms of possession. Without nice percentages, he's a medicore player)
Anyways, Dallas has struggled through their last 10 games, only winning two of them. They've dealt with some injuries to an already thin back-end although rumor is they may get Mark Fistric and Nicklas Grossman back very soon.
The bad news, of course, if that the Stars have the easiest path to tread down the stretch. They face a Nashless Columbus Blue Jackets tonight, the Colorado Avalanche twice and then the
Edmonton Oilers Minnesota Wild (don't worry...they're terrible too). It's as close to four sure-wins as it gets in the league currently. The Stars need six points in their last four games to end the Flames play-off hopes.
Of course, it goes without saying that none of this matter if Calgary doesn't win their last two games against the Oil and the Canucks. One day at a time though...