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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Flames 3, Oilers 1: Do you still believe?

This Calgary Flames team has seemingly forgotten how to quit.

10 days ago, on the heels of a 4-2 Flames loss to the Ottawa Senators, I declared:

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Neither the Flames nor the Montreal Canadiens seem at all intent on locking down the fourth and final playoff spot in the NHL’s North Division. Calgary boasts a 4-6-0 record in its last 10 games; Montreal, 3-7-0.

That said, at this point in the season, that spot is likely out of the Flames’ reach. Calgary sits six points behind Montreal in the standings and has played two more games than their Québécois rivals. It would take a miracle to supplant them in the playoff picture.

The Flames aren’t there yet, but—wouldn’t you know it—they’re still hanging around. Calgary has won three of its last four games, including two victories over those Montreal Canadiens. The Flames now sit just four points back of the final North Division playoff spot with seven games remaining in the regular season.

Yes, Montreal has one game in hand on the Flames. Even so, the Canadiens are in the midst of a dreadful stretch and have won just two of their last seven contests. Calgary has 47 points in 49 games; Montreal, 51 in 48.

Cue the arithmetic.

Montreal is set to take on the Winnipeg Jets on Friday at 5:00 pm MT. That game will be crucial in determining the Flames’ path forward. If the Canadiens win, the Flames might as well throw in the towel, shut down any injured players, and call up some kids from the now-inactive Stockton Heat.

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If Montreal loses, however… things get even more interesting.

Six of Montreal’s final eight games are against teams currently occupying North Division playoff spots. The Canadiens will play Winnipeg once, the Edmonton Oilers twice, the Toronto Maple Leafs three times, and the Ottawa Senators twice.

On the other hand, five of Calgary’s final seven games are against teams below them in the North Division standings. Of course, playing the Ottawa Senators one more time might be more of a curse than a blessing—the Flames have beaten the Sens just twice in eight games this year—but Calgary will also do battle with the Vancouver Canucks four times to conclude the season.

Now, let’s be real. Vancouver—and the rest of the NHL, to be frank—should probably not be playing games in the wake of the Canucks’ disastrous COVID outbreak in March.

It’s unfair to the Canucks’ players and their families for the team to be going through the wringer to reach the end of the season. Any theoretical “advantage” the Flames might gain from playing the Canucks should be seriously weighed against the long-term health risks of playing such a strenuous sport so soon after battling a deadly virus.

Against common sense, those games will be played. Prior to the outbreak, the Flames had beaten the Canucks four times in six meetings this season.

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The Flames currently hold most of the tiebreakers against Montreal in the standings and would likely need to grab four more points than the Canadiens over the rest of the season to make the playoffs. In short: If Calgary goes 5-2-0 and Montreal goes 3-4-0, the Flames make it.

Moneypuck currently estimates the Flames’ chances of making the playoffs at 20.2%. The Canadiens have 79.3% odds, while the Canucks sit at 1.1%. At this point, it’s essentially a two-horse race. Montreal may have a head start, but the Flames—somehow—aren’t out of it yet.

Sam Bennett may be thriving down in Florida, but Calgary isn’t doing badly in his absence. The Flames have controlled at least 50% of the 5-on-5 expected-goals share in eight of their last ten games.

While the Flames’ goal-scoring remains a work in progress, their number-one goaltender is, once again, looking the part. Jacob Markstrom was fantastic on Thursday, stopping 30 of the Oilers’ 31 shots and posting his best save percentage (.968) in a non-shutout game since Feb. 11 (.971).

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Markstrom allowed one goal in Thursday’s game. James Neal, of all people, scored a late first-period goal to tie the game at one, apiece. The goal was Neal’s first against the Flames since he was dealt to Edmonton in July 2019.

In case you hadn’t heard, Milan Lucic came to Calgary in that deal. He factored in on the Flames’ third goal of the contest, celebrating before the puck even crossed the goal line.

With the primary helper on Dube’s goal, Lucic now has 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 49 games this season. He needed 19 more games to record the same number of points last year.

Lucic’s current pace would put him at approximately 15 goals and 34 points in an 82-game campaign. That would be his best year since 2016-17, his first season with the Oilers. Talk about defying the odds.

His underlying numbers pass the smell test, too. According to Evolving-Hockey, Lucic has provided the Flames with 6.3 Goals Above Replacement (GAR) this season and has been one of the team’s best offensive play drivers. His 3.0 expected 5-on-5 offensive GAR ranks fourth on the Flames, behind only Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Is he worth $5.25 million? Nah. Will his no-movement clause matter for the Seattle expansion draft? It doesn’t look like it. Is he a useful NHL player in the year 2021? You bet. Who would’ve guessed?


The Three Gould Stars

It’s a play on my last name, see.

These “Gould Stars” will be used to recognize Flames players who were noticeable—for reasons both good and bad—in the game being discussed. This is not a list of the three best players.

  • Gould Star One: Elias Lindholm really likes scoring against the Oilers, you guys. Who is “Mike Smith,” anyway?

  • Gould Star Two: In the midst of what has been, at times, a difficult season for Rasmus Andersson, the Swedish blueliner came out firing on Thursday night. He recorded two helpers and was one of Calgary’s more effective players all night long, ranking second among Flames defensemen with a 61.08% expected goals rate at 5-on-5.

  • Gould Star Three: Nikita Nesterov was pretty great on Thursday. He finished the game with a sparkling +20.78 relative expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. The Flames out-chanced the Oilers 9-4 with him on the ice. That said, you probably remember this hit (which, yes, was a cross-check) more than anything else Nesterov did in the game.

Oh, the Battle of Alberta. See you again on Saturday.