The Flames' woes against the Ducks in Anaheim continued tonight, as they fell 3-1 in what you might call a valiant effort, although it was in my view a two period effort by the Flames. Mathieu Schneider scored the opening goal only 35 seconds in, getting wide open at the point and wiring a great shot past Kipper's blocker. The Flames never quite recovered from this. Scott Niedermayer made it 2-0 later in the first on the powerplay. Kipper was replaced after the first by Curtis Joseph for reasons I didn't quite understand, but Dion Phaneuf got the Flames back in it with his own nice point shot seven minutes into the second. The Flames fought hard in the second and got several good scoring chances in the third to tie it (including three posts hit) until Kristian Huselius sealed the Flames' fate with about four minutes left by taking a four minute high sticking penalty. Next up: a visit to Phoenix tomorrow night for a playoff dogfight of a game.
Eric Nystrom returned to the Flames lineup this game, logging nearly fifteen minutes ice time and having a good night all around (except for being used as a screen on Niedermayer's goal.) Let's hope he sticks around.
With my short game summary out of the way (I've realized most don't want to read blogs with detailed game summaries) I'll move on to the other subject of tonight's post: the playoff March for the Flames.
After tonight's games, the Flames are in sixth place in the West with 75 points, with Vancouver one point behind and Colorado in eighth with 72 points. The Flames are two points behind division leading Minnesota with a 5-1 season series advantage. This looks like a reasonably comfortable position for the Flames but they could just as easily miss the playoffs as they could win the division.
It typically takes at least 95 points to make the playoffs in the West. (Last year, the Flames edged out the Avs by one point - 96-95 - to take the eighth seed). With 17 games remaining, the Flames theoretically can make it by winning less than 10 games if they push a few games to OT (for example, 8-5-4 or 9-6-2 seem reasonably realistic records that would net 20 points). Winning about 10 out of 17 games is barely .600 hockey, so it's reasonable to say the Flames have a good chance of making the playoffs (especially with the remaining schedule filled with non playoff teams, which I will expand on later) if the 95-point trend repeats itself (which it may not - with the exception of the Flames last year, every playoff team in the West had 100 points or more.) It's also noteworthy that last season, the 4th-7th seeds finished within six points of each other, something that would repeat itself if the playoffs started today.
OK, so the Flames seem to be a reasonable bet to make it this year. But that division title is in reach! Could the Flames do it?
Every season since 2002-2003, winning the Northwest has taken 100-105 points (the Flames won it in 2006 with 103.) The trend will be on the borderline this year, as the currently leading Wild need to win about 10-13 games (with a few overtime games thrown in) to break the 100 mark. To get 100 points, the Flames need to win 10-12 games, realistically. The Flames and Wild's remaining schedules are about as tough. The Flames have 12 games against teams in the playoffs or playoff hunt (4 points or less) and the Wild have 11. This total includes two games the Flames and Wild play each other. Based on these statistics alone, it's fair to say that the Flames and Wild are both reasonable bets to win the division, but it will probably go down to the wire if it remains this close (in this case, the 81st game of the season, Flames @ Wild.)
However, I'm not particularly concerned with winning the division. I recall in 2006 when the Flames won the Northwest, Darryl Sutter was quoted as saying something like "The only thing winning the division brings is a 15-minute delay for the first home game of the next season." These turned out to be wise words, as the Flames were beat in seven games (being embarrassed 3-0 at home in the seventh game) in the first round by Anaheim. Home ice advantage is always nice but in the NHL it doesn't matter where you finish anymore. Of course, I'm not saying the Flames have a good chance to go deep, either. Those who've read my blog and talked with me on the message boards know that I am, in short, not a believer in the Flames this year.
I think that under the circumstances of this year's Flames season, making it to the second round would be somewhat satisfactory. So who would I be most comfortable facing in the first round, presuming the Flames don't fall apart this month and miss the playoffs?
For the sake of not sounding too sure of the Flames, I won't say "comfortable facing". Instead I'll just put it this way, if Gary Bettman held a gun to my head and forced me to pick a team for the Flames to play in the first round, who would I pick?
The Wings would embarrass us just like last year. The Flames have a decent record against Dallas but I don't want to face them when they have Richards. Despite the valiant effort tonight the Flames aren't near good enough to stand up to the Ducks (I didn't mention the possibility of the Flames finishing fifth but it's possible if they remain in the Northwest race until the end, and the Sharks continue their inconsistency). If they win the division I don't want to face Vancouver (the Flames have won just one game out of five against this year) nor Nashville, who the Flames typically have problems against. Colorado can overpower us with their superior speed and talent. San Jose might be alright if only for the fact that they are the Flames with more talent (I'm speaking of their consistency issues) and the Flames have won the season series 3-1 (albeit two of the wins were in overtime and one of them was won by Kipper alone.) But the Sharks are better with Campbell and they could be better if they make a coaching change in the next month, ala John Paddock's firing in Ottawa or Claude Julien's firing in New Jersey last year.
This only leaves one team left: Minnesota. The Flames have already clinched the season series (5-1 so far with two games left) and they are really the only team I feel the Flames would have a chance against. It could be a good series. In conclusion, it's probably best for the Flames if they stay in sixth and Minnesota wins the division, or even better, if they win the division and Minnesota finishes sixth.
Let the NHL's March Madness begin. Looks like a good race in the Northwest.