Monday, March 5, 2018

Weekend wrap: Flaming out

OK, maybe we were just a little premature on the whole “Western Conference final” thing.

That pick, from late January, had the Flames and Jets as the final two teams standing in the West. And half of the equation has held up pretty well. The Jets are rolling, with one of the league’s best records and a shiny new toy from the trade deadline to plug into an already loaded lineup.

But the Flames… man. At the time, they’d won seven straight, climbing as high as fifth in the West. They didn’t have much of a cushion to work with, with only four points separating them from ninth. But they were clicking, with the offence averaging nearly four goals a game during the streak and the goaltending looking solid, and they had all the momentum.

That all feels like it was a very long time ago. Today, the Flames wake up four points back of a wild-card spot, and it’s more like five since they don’t hold the tie-breaker. They’ve lost three straight, including the weekend’s unforgivable loss to a Rangers team that’s basically given up the season. And their playoff odds have plunged from over 60 percent during the streak to just over 15 percent today. Flames fans are coming to grips with the reality that this team – one that’s packed with young talent in their prime and that loaded up in the off-season in an effort to make the leap to true contenders – looks like it’s really going to blow this thing.

So what happened? Unlike most mid-season collapses, this one isn’t all that hard to figure out. It starts with that seven-game streak back in January, which was interrupted by perhaps the worst-timed bye week imaginable. All that momentum vanished over their league-mandated vacation, and they returned in time for that tough matchup against the Jets. They played OK in that one but dropped a 2–1 shootout decision. But then came a home loss to the lowly Sabres, and the losing streak was on. They’d drop six straight, wiping out just about all of the gains from the win streak.

Things seemed to get back on track with back-to-back wins over the Blackhawks, and a 3-2 win over the Islanders on Feb. 11 was their fourth in five games. But that’s the game that saw Mike Smith limp off with one second left on the clock; while there was early hope that the injury wasn’t serious, he hasn’t played since. The team chose not to acquire a veteran to plug the gap, riding with David Rittich and Jon Gillies instead, and while neither has been awful, they’re not Smith.

Realistically, the Flames need to play at a roughly 112-point pace the rest of the way to get to the 95 points that we typically use as a playoff cutoff. With three teams ahead of them, even that might not be enough if someone gets hot. The situation is dire. And it’s hard not to think ahead to the off-season and wonder what happens if a team with this much talent misses the playoffs. Will the team’s brain trust shrug it off as the result of bad luck and injuries – in addition to Smith, they’ve missed Micheal Ferland and Kris Versteeg – or do they respond with significant changes?

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, of course; as our next section will remind us, teams can sometimes go from write-offs back to contenders relatively quickly. But it’s fair to say that time is running out in Calgary. They’ve got a tough one tonight in Pittsburgh, but the schedule gets easier after that, including games this week against the Sabres, Senators and Islanders. Moral victories like Friday’s 51–shot performance against the Rangers won’t cut it — they need to bank some points, and soon. If they don’t, then the season is over. And the hard questions will be just beginning.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Vegas Golden Knights (42-18-5, +45 true goals differential*): Yesterday’s win over the Devils snapped their losing streak at a season-high three games.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (37-25-4, +15): They’re still holding down a spot in the top five, even though they’re only third in their own division and occasionally have games like this.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

1 comment:

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