Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

Gulutzan has to serve two masters down the stretch

After the Calgary Flames clinched their post-season spot, two thoughts immediately crept into my mind: “Great, now they can rest some banged-up players!” and “The West is really tight, should they be resting any guys?

In his post-game press conference on Friday, Gulutzan did reveal that a few players are playing below 100% health:

Despite the presence of a few bruises in his lineup, Gulutzan indicated following Sunday’s morning skate that he wouldn’t be making changes for this evening. In explaining his club’s focus for their final few games, he revealed some of the thought process behind his decision-making: the team hasn’t been great lately.

“Our game, since maybe not right after the 10-gamer, our game has dipped a little bit,” said Gulutzan. “I think we were squeezing a bit to finally get the X beside our name, now that we’ve done that we do have to shore up some things. We looked at about six or seven clips this morning of us not executing the way we need to. Our focus is on climbing and looking up, like we’ve said for a long time. These next games are hard, they’re meaningful games. We need to find our level.”

The Flames have posted a 5-4-0 record since their 10-game winning streak, and some worrying habits have crept into their game – particularly some rather haphazard play with the puck in the defensive zone and arguably sitting back and letting the other side dictate the pace. Their bench boss wants them to tidy things up.

“We started talking today, the first time we can talk about it, is habits that are going to carry over into these games and then carry over into the playoffs that have to be entrenched now,” said Gulutzan. “You can’t try to clean these up later. So we talked about some of these areas. We’ve probably got six areas that we’ve identified as important going into the playoffs and we’re going to put those into our games here just as points of emphasis.”

Gulutzan is, in essence, serving two masters: he has to entrench (or re-establish) the team’s good habits while trying to ensure that he can ice the best, healthiest lineup possible when the playoffs open on April 12. While it’s inevitable that some players will eventually come out, his focus seems to be on getting the team playoff-ready.

“Entrenching stuff is going to be video work, so everybody’s gonna get that,” said Gulutzan. “Re-establishing just our principles again and some of the important things for the playoffs. As far as the nicks go, we do have some nicks in there, I don’t know when I’ll take some guys out of the lineup. If Kent tells me that it’s getting worse or it’s getting better, those things are going to dictate what we do with our lineup. Right now, I’ll tell you there’s a couple guys in there we thought we might take out. Yesterday was a recovery day, they feel better today so they stay in. But I won’t risk anything going down the line as far as health.”

If I was a betting man, I’d wager that we’ll see some changes following the impending pair of games with Anaheim. Following those games, it’ll be much clearer where the Flames will probably finish in the Western Conference and a pair of playoff-like games will probably push some of the players on the brink of needing a rest towards the point of no return. Historically, the Flames have brought up several players on emergency recalls for the final game or two to give their banged-up regulars a rest.

The X-factor for this season’s final contests may be the Stockton Heat, which could turn into the third “master” that Gulutzan and Flames management has to serve over the next 10 days. The Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate is in the midst of a fevered battle for the final Pacific Division playoff spot. Here’s a quick look at how Stockton’s games fit within Calgary’s last few.

  • April 4: Calgary at Anaheim
  • April 5: San Diego at Stockton
  • April 6: Calgary at Los Angeles
  • April 8: San Jose at Stockton, Calgary at San Jose
  • April 9: Stockton at San Jose

They’re all in California, but the final date of the Flames’ year is at the same time as a key divisional game for the Heat. Considering that Stockton’s top guns will probably be needed to get that group into the postseason (and the perceived importance of making the playoffs for the AHL club’s development), we may see some interesting (and unexpected) names get called up by the Flames for the final game or two.