The Flames are in the playoffs. They have the edge for the Pacific Division title – and with it, presumably, an easier first round matchup – though by no means is it secured. They have a handful of players out due to various ailments and injuries, but they’re still winning games for the most part.
It’s a tough balancing act: on the one hand, you want the team to be ready for the playoffs, fresh and winning as many games as possible (or at least until first place in the division – and with it, the conference – is clinched). On the other hand, these guys have been at this since October; players are undoubtedly hurt, and you want them to be as healthy as possible for the playoffs.
Presently, the Flames have three forwards unavailable: Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, and James Neal, all of whom are basically considered day-to-day at this point. Curtis Lazar remains up on emergency recall, giving the Flames just 12 healthy forwards currently; they’re hanging on by a thread.
There’s another little wrinkle to all of this: of the nine games the Flames have remaining in the regular season, only two are against playoff-caliber opponents, including the one team that’s still really capable of catching them: the Sharks. That game probably gets as full and healthy a lineup as possible – if there’s any one game to win, it’s that one – but otherwise, the Flames are almost exclusively playing sub-.500 teams for the rest of the season.
You don’t take any wins for granted, of course, but that’s some relatively weak competition coming up. The Flames have survived thus far without Monahan; is he particularly crucial to get into the lineup against the Senators? What if, say, Matthew Tkachuk or Johnny Gaudreau or Mark Giordano could use a night off – when is it appropriate to give one to them?
The race for the division could go right down to the wire, meaning if the Flames continue to dress a full lineup until their place in the standings is certain, they may not have the chance to give much of anyone else a night off. But – fully accepting we won’t know for a while yet how injured any of these guys are, if at all – it’s also entirely possible nobody really needs a night off.
So, what would you do? Play it safe by continuing to dress as full a lineup as possible, as early as possible? (Neal is a whole other story: he hasn’t played in over a month and is probably in much more need of getting his legs back under him than Monahan or Bennett.) Considering the weak level of competition, maybe rotate between giving some players nights off? Just wait until the division is settled before even considering tackling this?
The situation is a fine line – and for the first time in a long time, there’s so much more at stake than just trying to ensure they’re getting in. The strong possibility of having an actual playoff run to shape up for is in effect. Home ice advantage is almost certainly happening; a favourable first round matchup is very much on the table, and it could make all the difference – but only if the Flames are able to make their final regular season games count, and it only works out if they’re healthy enough to play for, ideally, a couple more months.