As the Flames come off their break Friday night in Washington, they find themselves on top of the Pacific Division and Western Conference. With 31 games to go, Calgary has eyes on one of their best regular season finishes in team history and a deep playoff run. In no particular order, let’s go through some of the top storylines to watch as the Flames get ready to kick off their stretch drive.
Feb. 7 vs. San Jose; March 31 at San Jose. Calgary has two games remaining with both teams they’re in the fight with atop the Pacific Division, one at home and one on the road. The Sharks are all-in this season and one of the NHL’s most interesting teams to watch at the deadline. These two games could go a long way in deciding the division and playoff seeding.
Feb. 12 at Tampa Bay. The first Flames and Lightning showdown lived up to the hype and then some, and I can’t see the buzz being any less in the return meeting. Much like Dec. 20, both Calgary and Tampa will be fighting near the top of the league, so hopefully things are as exciting as round one.
March 6 at Vegas; March 10 vs. Vegas. The Flames play the other team in the Pacific picture twice in the span of five days, with both games coming after this year’s trade deadline. We’ll have a good idea how both teams will look come the postseason, so these two games could be first or second round previews. The Golden Knights scare me; they’re deep, structured, and have proven goaltending, so I can’t wait to see how they measure up to the Flames in March.
March 4 vs. Toronto. The atmosphere is always great when the Maple Leafs visit the Saddledome, but knowing how well both teams have played this season, it should be at a whole new level in early March. Will the Leafs have added a big name defenceman when they swing through Western Canada?
April 6 vs. Edmonton. It’s the rubber match of the Battle of Alberta. It’s the final game of the season before the Flames embark on their postseason journey. And the Oilers could very well need a Game 82 win to punch their playoff ticket. The final game of the regular season could be a lot of fun.
THE TRADE DEADLINE
So much has been written on FlamesNation about what Calgary’s approach should be to this year’s deadline, so I won’t rehash everything. I’m just fascinated to see how the Flames go about shaping their team for the playoffs knowing how much they’ve exceeded expectations, both internally and externally.
You could make an argument for Calgary to chase an addition at every position, too. Should they be in search of an upgrade at backup goalie? Do the Flames need more experienced depth on the blueline? And what about one of those names up front like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Micheal Ferland, or Kevin Hayes?
You can pinpoint Dec. 9 when the needle started to move in Calgary’s goaltending battle. In the 30 games up to that point, Mike Smith had started 18 games compared to 12 for David Rittich. In the 21 games since, the pendulum has swung dramatically the other way; Rittich has started 15 games against just six for Smith.
Assuming Rittich maintains his level of play, and Smith plays passable hockey like he has of late, I’m curious to see what this workload looks like down the stretch. Using our Dec. 9 reference date, Rittich has started 71.4% of Calgary’s games heading into the break. If that pace continues, he’d be in line to start 22 of the team’s final 31 games, leaving nine for Smith.
That sounds like a fair split to me, but the Flames have to weigh a couple important things. Is Rittich’s fatigue level manageable heading into the playoffs at that pace? And is Smith (or another goalie) getting enough work in the event a change needs to be made?
THE TROPHY CHASE
If things continue in the final two months of the season the way have thus far, Calgary has the chance to have a number of players up for year-end awards. There are the obvious ones, of course: Mark Giordano for the Norris Trophy and Johnny Gaudreau for the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. Depending on how things fall, though, they might have company.
Sean Monahan’s 10 penalty minutes is the lowest total among the NHL’s leading scorers, which automatically puts him in the Lady Byng race. Rittich’s workload might make it tough, but I think he’ll get some outside Vezina consideration. Could Elias Lindholm be in the Selke conversation? And what about Bill Peters and Brad Treliving for Coach of the Year and GM of the Year, respectively?
It’s impossible to handicap how a group of media people are going to cast votes, but the fact you can’t dismiss any of the above suggestions shows just how well this team has played.
THE CHASE FOR 100
The Flames have only finished with 100 or more points four times in team history, as illustrated below:
With 71 points already, this team would have to play some seriously mediocre hockey down the stretch to avoid being the fifth member of that group. With 31 games to go, even something as blah as 12-14-5 gets them to triple digits, but the expectations are far higher than that. Calgary’s pace right now has them finishing at 114, so let’s see how high up the franchise list they can finish.
It’s important to note a 100-point season hasn’t translated to great playoff success. Aside from 1988-89, the Flames have only won one playoff round in the next three seasons on that list (4-1 over the LA Kings in 1988). It’s a good thing history is nothing more than just that.