Prior to the season, I marked the Flames as a 7-10 club in the west. It’s not a terribly wide range in terms of actual results – probably 1-2 wins over 82 games. It’s a big difference when it comes to consequences however – at 7-8, the Flames sneak into the post-season and give us (and the ownership) something else to cheer for in April. At 9-10, the club picks in the low teens in the draft and the chances of a full-blown, scorched earth rebuild grow exponentially.
After their dreadful four game road trip and then glorious (if unexpected) resurrection vs Detroit and Vancouver before the break, the Flames are now two points out of the 8th and final spot in the west. Of course, the issue is less distance to the goal line than it is the number of opponents blocking the path. As usual, the west has a huge and utterly cluttered middle class: Calgary (38 points) will be battling Dallas (41 points), Nashville (40 points), Los Angeles (39 points), Phoenix (39 points) and Colorado (39 points) for the last couple of playoff positions. We can also expect the faltering Minnesota Wild (45 points) to enter the mix in the second half of the season as well.
That is 6 or 7 clubs battling for a couple of spots. There’s about 5 teams up top who are more or less shoe-ins (CHI, DET, VAN, STL, SJS) and three bottom-dwellers who will be jockeying for better draft position down the stretch (EDM, ANA, CBJ). It’s a dog-fight for the rest of pack. The Flames are probably a little better in terms of true talent than some of their closest post-season rivals and maybe a little worse than a few others. The difference isn’t a big one though – a few key injuries or a bad stretch of luck can sink playoff aspirations pretty quickly.
That is the back-drop for the Flames upcoming six-game road trip. Starting tonight, Calgary will face Columbus, the NY Islanders, Ottawa, Nasvhille, Washington and Boston between now and January the 5th. That’s 6 teams in 10 days. Some of them entirely beatable, others a much greater challenge.
The quality of the opponent may be moot, however, if the Flames can’t be much better away form the ‘Dome. Even with their decisive win over the Canucks recently, the Flames remain the worst team in the NHL on the road in terms of possession. To put that in perspective, Calgary is markedly worse at controlling the play at even strength than even the Islanders and Oilers on foreign ice when the score is close. That’s a big reason the Flames are under .500 outside of Calgary (7-10-2).
We haven’t fully explored why the club has struggled so completely at moving the play north on the road, but at this point it’s wholly academic – staring down the longest road swing of the year, the Flames will have to improve drastically one way or another in order to stay in the heat of the playoff race in the west.
If they can continue to display the form they showed in Vancouver during this upcoming sojourn, the playoffs will be a possibility when they return home – if not, we will likely start debating which pieces should be moved when the Flames sell at the deadline.