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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Crucial games and year-end awards highlight stories to watch down the stretch

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.

BIG GAMES

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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?

GOALIE MANAGEMENT

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Season Record PTS
1988-89 54-17-9 117
1987-88 48-23-9 105
2005-06 46-25-11 103
1990-91 46-26-8 100

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.

  • Squishin

    Personally I’m hoping to stand pat this year. We already have a good enough team to make a solid run for the Cup. On how many nights this year have we felt that the team was completely out of a game? I can probably count those nights on one hand, and we’ve played 51. Pretty good odds.
    My view is that we should extend the contention window, not narrow it. This means keeping the picks and prospects and putting the most effort into amateur scouting and player development. Let’s get those young, cheap guys contributing 5 years down the road.
    The Winnipeg draft-and-develop model is the best for long-term success. Cheveldayoff is looking like an utter genius now, but the answer was so simple this whole time:
    Win the cap system through your own organization and don’t try to cheat the most important part of core-building with trades and FA signings.

      • withachance

        He did the Statsny trade but still didnt win. He was in a position to deal 1st rounder because of how well stocked the winnipeg prospect cupboards were. Flames are in a different position. Sharks got Kane last year too, didnt turn out too well for them either. VGK got Tartar, ditto.

        WSH went low key and got Kempny after years of going for the big fish (see Shattenkirk), wins the cup. Big example of less is more.

        • Off the wall

          Solid argument for making a minor tweek. Perhaps I should re-evaluate my BIG FISH talk?

          I still think we need another secondary scorer to complete our roster. If we could find a (passer) or complement for Neal, I’d be really happy with that!

      • Squishin

        You’re right, but I think that was a mistake on their part. Even though Stastny was a best-case-scenario trade (he helped them quite a lot) they spent a first-rounder on him. A high-profile young prospect under team control for years. Winnipeg’s first-round pick in 2018 was flipped by St. Louis to Toronto, who used it to select Rasmus Sandin. He will be very good in the years to come, believe me. Winnipeg could have used a cheap young player like him on their blue-line in 2020 or 2021, especially with their impending cap crunch. Was it worth giving that up just for one season of playoff help? In which they didn’t win the Cup?

  • Off the wall

    1988-89. What a year!
    I was living in rural Manitoba, watching every playoff game with great anticipation.
    I couldn’t watch all the regular season games, so a buddy of mine from Calgary sent me VHS tapes of every game played via mail (weekly).

    What a great friend!

    It’s hard to believe we have waited 30 years for the same level of excitement from this team. I know 2004 was special, however I believe we’re on the cusp of another 1988-89 season!

    I don’t want us to fall short. That’s why I want to see aggressive tactics by Treliving.

    I can feel it again. It makes me giddy with anticipation. Much like 88-89.

    Only this time I won’t have to rely on an antenna to watch it!
    Go Flames!!!!

      • Off the wall

        I think so Jesse. They didn’t lose more than 2 games in a row that year.

        Here’s something outstanding about 88-89.
        GF- 354
        GA-226
        Difference of + 128 goals for!
        We’ll likely never see that again!
        Powerhouse..

        Right now our Flames are:
        GF – 190
        GA -145
        If we kept up at this torrid pace we’d be projected at:
        GF- 305
        GA-233

        Plus 72 goal differential.
        Wow!

        That’s impressive by today’s standards. I don’t believe any team has won the Cup without a positive differential of +30. The last team to win with (less) in the last decade was Washington with a plus 20 last season.

        I think we’re heading in the right direction!

  • Garry T

    I cannot see the Flames picking up a Duschene or similar player unless they are going to unload Frolik or Stone or both. I think it would be a huge mistake trading Frolik. In terms of Defencemen, I am thinking UFA or RFA exposure with
    the ability to sign the player at the end of the season as opposed to an in and out. Someone doing a good job with their current team, but too many defencemen on hand. As to forward, there are a fair few teams out there that have two /three year veterans with scoring punch that they may be able to or not want to re-sign due to cap restraints.

    I’ll bet there are a lot of seasoned GMS thinking, why did we ever give up RFA age of 28 with control. It seems every agent wants to start at $ 7 mil for their players. This is really getting out of hand.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      Yeah, this cap system is getting interesting to say the least, especially with certain (now relieved) GMs giving like 8+ million after an entry deal, and other players fetching north of 12 million. Its an economy that must rely on balance, which I’m fine with, and think has been a wonderful change. But if and when that balance in this economy gets too out of control, I wonder what’s going to happen?

      I think the theme, which of course is not new, of players taking a “team discount” in order to win (i.e. Toronto next year if they want to keep everyone) is kind of a resurgent method used to balance it all out.

      This all makes Tree all the better as a GM for how tight his salary structure is.

  • Jourflamesfan

    Good teams overcome adversity and are at their best when faced with a big challenge.
    For this team it’s now make or break time.
    Now or never.
    User or loser.
    Do or die.

  • I don’t think Tre trades for a trade’s sake… he’ll only pull the trigger on one that makes us significantly better for the Cup run this year. That one is going to be Panarin for Kylington and our first rounder. Johnny/Monny/Lindy for 20 minutes a night followed by Chucky/Backs/Panarin for another 20 makes us significantly better than we are now.

        • Manginasal

          Our first round pick will highly probably never play in the NHL consistently and kylington is very much an unknown. But for the hell of it even if you’re right, which is improbable, are you aware of what Panarin is?

          Here are people Panarin is tied in points with: Marchand, Ovechkin, Tkachuk, Aho.

          You’re talking about acquiring a bonafide NHL (super?) star. Like… holy smokes. Really? I borderline am wondering if you’re drunk here.

          • Kevin R

            Those type of deals happen in the summer, TDL is basically teams arming themselves that know they are playoff bound. This is the first time in what I can remember we have playoffs locked up before the TDL. Gio is 35 & I really dont expect him to be a Norris candidate for the next 3 years. The stars are aligning my friend, a high end rental would be a smart thing to do.
            I would go after Stone & offer Ottawa our 2019 1st, Czarnik, Ruzicka, a conditional 2020 2nd if we make the conference finals & even a 2021 1st if we resign him(which is 90% unlikely).

            Imagine we roll out Gaudreau/Monahan/Lindholm
            Tkachuk/Bennett/Stone
            Neal/Backlund/Frolik
            Hathaway/Janko/Ryan

            So we lose a late first & Czarnik who we can easily replace & if it works & we get through 2 rounds, a 2020 2nd. I do that all day long & its a better package than what Buffalo got for Evander Kane last year. But I think Stone is way better anyway.

    • Jessemadnote

      Where are you hearing that? Ya I’m thinking Zucc + Neal on the third line could be a really good match. Pure scorer and an elite passer, both a pain in the ass to play against. I would do Czarnik, 2020 2nd, and Ruzicka.

      • Brian McGrattan's Salute

        Mostly on Twitter, but Friedeman had some stuff on it today or yesterday. I never know how much to believe these rumours, But Elliotte seems to have a better pulse on things than most.

        My thoughts exactly with Neal. Zucc is a seasoned playmaker, with good hands, who had a 50+ season last year. Could be great.

        But now I’m just trying to think of the lines! Janko could learn a lot centering those two, but then that means either Bennett or Frolik gets pushed to the forth line…

        Or maybe there is another solution?

        Any thoughts on lines?

        • Jessemadnote

          I would think the bottom nine would continue in the blender and that’s okay. Top heavy teams get a healthy dose of the 3M, deeper teams get a Backs, Neal, Zucc 2nd a line and a chucky, Janko frolik 3rd Line. I think Bennett is the one getting pushed down in the rotation but he’s a team player and won’t be to put out. Plus Bennett and Hathaway will stir up havoc.

      • Kevin R

        Too much, either the 2020 2nd & Ruzicka or Czarnik & Ruzicka. He wouldnt be my first choice rental, thing is Tre probably wants lots of rumours out there of players connected to us so he can grind the price down to acquire any rental. Lebrun thinks Jets & Flames are going to pull off huge TDL deals. Maybe but he thinks Ferland is a target but I dont think so.