Ask anyone, whether it be bloggers, journalists, coaches or players, and the universal response to the question "How many points will it take to make the playoffs in the Western Conference?" would probably be 94 or 95 points. The Calgary Flames are embroiled in the tightest points race in hockey, the Northwest Division race, a remarkable logjam of a division that, if it continues at its pace, will determine four out of the eight playoff spots in the West (3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th). Yet, if even one of these teams suffers a significant slip, they could find themselves not only out of the race, but even out of the playoffs. Of the Wild, Flames, Avalanche and Canucks, the Flames seem, based on consistency, to be the most likely to suffer this catastrophe. The most remarkable thing about the Northwest, and something that surely has the NHL's marketing department exchanging high fives, is that these four front runners have almost the exact same remaining schedules, with every single one of their respective remaining games against each other. In essence, the remaining schedule should leave no doubt as to who the best team in the Northwest is.
With the standings the way they are, the Flames would have to completely fall apart, put simply, to miss the playoffs. If the estimate of 94 or 95 points proves correct, the Calgary Flames only need to win 6 of their remaining 11 games to make the playoffs. And they have 3 teams out of the playoffs remaining in their schedule (although two are against Edmonton, who should not be entirely counted out). The Flames' win over Chicago yesterday was huge for this reason. Their next game, tomorrow against Columbus has the same magnitude. So the Flames can make the playoffs, theoretically, by simply beating Columbus, Edmonton twice, and win two games against their closest divisional rivals, out of seven.
Some here know me as a pessimist for a long while about this year's Flames team. The previous paragraph may have seemed like all I expect of the Flames is another nail biting squeak into the playoffs on the 81st game of the season. However, I'll now analyze what it will take for the Flames to take the division and home ice advantage, just for the optimists out there, and my own inner faith.
As I noted, seven of the Flames' final 10 games are against their close rivals, and I believe the same applies to said rivals. I've said several times that Minnesota is the only team the Flames stand a chance against in the playoffs, this is based primarily on the fact that the Flames have a better record against Minnesota - 5-1 - than any other team in the division or even conference. Statistically, Minnesota is the most likely team for the Flames to overtake, as the first rule that determines seeding in the event of a tie is the season series, which the Flames have already clinched.
Moving from the Wild to the Avalanche, currently tied with the Flames in points. The Avalanche have a 4-2 season series lead (however, it is noteworthy that three of these wins were in overtime and one came after Calgary blew a 4-0 lead.) The Flames can only tie this series, so the next NHL rule determining seeding is number of wins, of which the Avalanche have two more (however, they've also played two more games than the Flames.) The final rule, goal differential, is a paper thin difference: the Flames have 205 to the Avs' 202. Statistically, this one is simply too close to call, although my gut has to go with the Avs. (I simply can't get through a paragraph without at least one pessimistic statement, I'm sorry.)
The final team I will consider here is the Vancouver Canucks, within four points of Minnesota and currently up 2-1 on the Coyotes. I think I speak for all Flames fans when I say that, short of Edmonton catching fire, the Flames fizzling and the Oil somehow beating out the Flames to grab the eighth seed, losing a playoff spot to the Canucks would be my worst nightmare. This is an intriguing battle because the Flames and Canucks have virtually the same record. The Canucks have dominated the Flames this season, however, with a 4-1 advantage. The Flames can tie the series, but looking at the scores of past Flames-Canucks games this year makes this less probable than tying the Avs. However, if this managed to happen, I can't make a prediction what the win differential would be, since it's so close, but the Flames have outscored the Canucks 205-190.
In total, the Flames schedule totals tomorrow's game in Columbus, home games against all four Northwest teams, road games against Minnesota, Colorado and Edmonton, and two road games against Vancouver. If my guess of 100-101 points to win the division proves correct, these are the games Calgary would have to win to get that magic number and home ice advantage (or at least these are the "easiest" games):
Tomorrow in Columbus, Thursday vs. Colorado, Saturday vs. Minnesota, March 25 vs Vancouver, their final home game vs. Edmonton on the 29th, in Edmonton on April 1st, and in Minnesota on April 3rd.
Basically, the Flames probably need to win at least 7 out of their last 11 games to win the division (perhaps 7-1-2 or 7-1-3).
However, to reach 94 or 95 points they have to win, at the very least, 6 out of their last 11. (I've thought that 6-4-1 could happen.)
Why did I post this long, number crunching post if I'm so pessimistic? Because I still think the Flames' chances of getting beyond the first round (and even getting in the playoffs) depends solely on Calgary and Minnesota finishing 1-2 in the Northwest so they play each other in the first round.
However, in whatever scenario, whether the Flames finish 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th or even 9th, one theme is common: the Flames must beat their lesser opponents. An obvious observation, I know, but it's not one the Flames have taken to heart and one of the reasons I'm so pessimistic. Yesterday's game was a positive sign, I suppose.
It is almost unbelievable, even by its own standards, how close the Northwest Divison is. For the Flames and the rest of the division, the playoffs unofficially start tomorrow.