There are two ways to look at the Calgary Flames’ strength of schedule the rest of the way.
That should read: lack of strength.
Ahead of the Friday/Saturday back-to-back set, the Flames’ remaining games were ranked by the NHL as tops in terms of paths of least resistance down the stretch.
And while that may be a reassuring thought for some given that their final 10 games offer just three matchups against teams currently holding a playoff position, others might worry that a lack of competitive push could actually do the Flames a disservice.
Those who like the relative ease of what lies ahead enjoy it because it increases their chances of finishing as the top seed in the Western Conference and with the Pacific Division title, avoiding a first-round matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights.
And yes, that does seem a prudent path considering the Flames have yet to win in Vegas through two seasons, and if they were to meet in a second-round situation, the Flames would hold home-ice advantage. So there’s that.
But is there a bit of a danger — especially now that the Flames have already clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Minnesota Wild’s overtime loss on Sunday night — that the Flames will reach the postseason schedule and have to flip a switch from cruise control to battle mode?
That, against a wild card team that had to scratch and claw its way to the playoffs.
It’s something the captain, Mark Giordano, brought up recently when cautioning reporters on trying to pick and choose your opponents.
“The team that gets in as the wild card is going to be playing really well and playing really hard,” Giordano said.
“I’ve never been a fan of trying to pick and choose who you want to (face in the) playoffs because the league’s so tight. The team that’s usually in the wild card is feeling good and playing well. And if you want to go all the way, you’re going to have to go through a lot of great teams.”
The San Jose Sharks and/or Knights among them.
The Sharks are one of the few teams on the schedule who pose a heavy challenge — at least on paper. How the Flames perform in that one on March 31 might be the best indication of how capable they may be at matching a mightier opponent’s intensity come the end of the regular season.
But that might also be dependent on what’s really on the line at that point, and whether a loss could actually mean a lower seeding.
Following Saturday’s stifling loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the showdown with the Sharks might be the only true test of character left for a team enjoying or on pace for career seasons from seven players this season — Johnny Gaudreau (goals, assists, points); Elias Lindholm (goals, assists, points); Sean Monahan (goals, assists, points); Matthew Tkachuk (goals, assists, points); Mark Giordano (assists, points); Noah Hanifin (assists, points); Mark Jankowski (assists, points).
Only the Sharks (.653), Dallas Stars (.556) and Columbus Blue Jackets (.583) have points percentages over .500.
The rest are among the league’s worst this season, in competition for lottery spots as opposed to the playoffs.
After hosting the Blue Jackets on Tuesday, they welcome the abysmal Ottawa Senators (.389) on Thursday, then visit the Vancouver Canucks (.486). They’re home against the Los Angeles Kings (.408), Stars and Anaheim Ducks (.466) before hitting the road to see the Sharks, Kings and Ducks.
The regular-season finale is at home to the Oilers (.493).
There’s always hope for a rivalry factor against the likes of the Oilers and Canucks. And perhaps the Tkachuk factor will come into play against the Kings, too, given his history of ticking off Drew Doughty.
If not, Flames fans will have to hope the potential confidence boost from some lopsided decisions down the stretch and a top billing for the playoffs outweighs any negative from any the possible lack of competitive fire they’ll face on the ice as they make their way there.