On Saturday, March 5, the Flames did the unthinkable: they won a hockey game. It was a bold strategy for a tank-bound team, and we’ll see how getting those extra two points pays off for them.
On Monday, March 7, the Flames went beyond the unthinkable: they tried to win a second straight hockey game. In a just world, they would have, too, but were only able to come away with one point.
Three of four points over the last two games brings them up to 59 on the season. There are 16 games left: roughly 20% of the year to be played out in what should be, ultimately, meaningless contests. Eight are at home, eight are away. That’s an additional possible 32 points for them, though we know they won’t get all of them; even the best teams in the NHL rarely go on 16-game winning streaks.
Still, those 32 possible points would bring them up to 91, which would have put them just outside the bottom third of the NHL last season: not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to get good lottery odds.
But of course, even tanking is no guarantee nowadays. The Buffalo Sabres threw away an entire season in hopes of getting Connor McDavid and were thwarted by lottery balls. Still, the odds are just that much better – and if you finish last in the NHL, the absolute worst you can pick is fourth overall.
Which games left on the Flames’ schedule could they still pick up points from? There’s no exact science to this – for example, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a better team than them still fighting to secure a playoff spot, so I never would have taken the Flames over them – but let’s run down the schedule and see where each opponent sits.
The rest of the home stand
Nashville Predators: Up next are the Preds, who currently sit 19 points up on the Flames and in the first wild card spot in the West. They’ve played twice so far this season, both 2-1 contests, so head-to-head, things have been close. There’s no direct competition to be found here though; Nashville is pretty likely to be a playoff team, even though they’re seven points back of reaching the top three in the Central Division. They’ve picked up points in their last 12 games straight, though, and against Calgary, it’s easy to see that continuing. I’d mark this one up to a possibility – but not something to hold one’s breath over.
Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes are still technically in playoff contention, but they’re also 10 points back, so not really. They’re three points up on the Flames, so this is actually kind of a four-point game, if we’re keeping track of the race to the bottom to that extent. That should, in theory, easily put the Flames in contention for this game… except the Coyotes have had their number this season, winning all three meetings so far and outscoring Calgary 8-3. So I’m going to go ahead and preemptively say Arizona wins this tank battle, or more accurately, Calgary wins it, because they lose… and see this is the problem with tanking, now everything’s just confusing.
St. Louis Blues: The Blues have 85 points this season. They are one of the top three teams in the Central, in the race for home ice advantage (they’re just two points back of the Blackhawks and Stars). Also, the last time the Flames beat them was 2013. So basically, they’re a significantly better team that still has something to play for. This game should probably be a massacre.
Winnipeg Jets: This one is an extremely important tank battle: the Jets have the same number of points as the Flames, but just one fewer game played. It’s a crucial game, in part because either party could easily win it. This is definitely a winnable game for the Flames, and a game they could use to jump over the Jets in the standings.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche still have something to play for. They went in at the trade deadline, and they’re right on the verge of a wild card spot. But they’re also the worst corsi team in the entire NHL, and in their last meeting, they got shut out by the Flames. The Flames. And their goaltending. Shut out another team. This is definitely a winnable game as well, although it shouldn’t be.
The following week
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are bad. They are really, really bad. They’re basically playing with an AHL lineup, and even though they’ve got the best AHL team this season, an AHL team still isn’t really a match for an NHL one. They had a 3-1 lead on the Buffalo Sabres and lost in a shootout. We’re looking at the most likely candidates for 30th in the NHL, so this is a pretty winnable game.
Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens are also bad. They’re a Canadian team, of course they’re bad. Back in October, they defeated the Flames 6-2, but it definitely ain’t October anymore. Still, though, they’ve got more points than the Flames at present time, with 66 putting them at a .500 record. They’re beatable, but the Flames could still just as easily fall to them. We all know Paul Byron is going to score a hat trick in this matchup anyway, right? That’ll help things along.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild are in a similar position to the Avalanche: 72 points, but with one game in hand, they’re just barely holding on to that final wild card spot. They’ve got a lot to play for, and they’re about where the Flames are corsi-wise. So this should be a relatively evenly matched game – but a game Minnesota is going to come into knowing they absolutely have to win, and I could see that making a difference. (That, and their willingness to change coaches.) (Also – you’ve gotta think Niklas Backstrom is definitely starting this one.)
Chicago Blackhawks: They’re tied for second in overall league standings. They’re a Stanley Cup favourite still, just one year removed from having actually won it. The Flames beat them in overtime once earlier this season, but if there’s any justice, this one is going to be a bloodbath. The Hawks still have a lot to play for, after all: they probably aren’t going to top the Washington Capitals by the season’s end, but they can at least top the West.
All the divisional games
Arizona Coyotes: These guys again? Really, I wonder how the other game will go, but if Arizona wins that one, I wouldn’t put it past them to get the season sweep.
Anaheim Ducks: This game will take place in Anaheim, so you already know the answer. Also, they’re still fighting for top spot in the Pacific Division – and may even be able to challenge for the top spot in the West. The Flames aren’t winning this one. (Remember when the Flames were above the Ducks in the standings? If you needed any more proof that the Flames weren’t a team who had a stretch of bad luck to start the season… No, that was the Ducks. And they got over it. Because they’re a good team.)
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are still in the fight for top spot in the Pacific, and maybe the entire West as well. They’re a Stanley Cup contender that has soundly defeated the Flames the first two times they’ve played this season. This one doesn’t look to good.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers… are the Oilers. On the one hand, this is primed for a tank battle; on the other hand, tanks tend to go out the window when it comes to Battles of Alberta and pride always takes over. The Flames aren’t sweeping the Oilers this year; they’re currently at a 2-1-1 record over the masters of the lottery, so things are actually really, really close. It should actually be a fun, but definitely still winnable, game.
Los Angeles Kings: There’s something else to consider here: depending on just what the standings look like at this point, the Kings might not even be playing with a full NHL roster by the time it hits April, instead vying to keep their main guys as healthy as possible. On the other hand, if they still have something to play for, it could be another beatdown in the making. I’m going with the season sweep and beatdown.
Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are above the Flames in the standings, but mostly because they keep losing games in overtime. Season opener aside – back when both clubs had so much hope – the Flames have kind of kicked their asses as the season has progressed. It’s easy to see them doing it again for their last home game.
… And Minnesota
Minnesota Wild: What an odd choice for a season finale. If the Wild still have something to play for, it’ll be really interesting: the Wild will be playing to make the playoffs, but there’s really an extra level of motivation to be found for being the guys directly responsible for ending someone else’s season. This one can easily be a tossup.
Through the rest of the season, I can see the Flames beating the Jets, Avs, Leafs, Oilers, Canucks, and maybe the Predators, Canadiens, and Wild once. The Flames could go .500 the rest of the season, which would see them finish the season with 75 points. Anything more than that, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.
In 2014-15, 75 points would have had the Flames picking sixth overall, but to be fair, that was a very special year for designer tanking. In 2013-14, 75 points would see a team picking fourth overall. The actual fourth overall place team that year? The Flames: with 77 points.