I have been criticized recently because of my extreme pessimism regarding the Calgary Flames' chances for the rest of this NHL season. Well, I point the optimists in the direction of the Flames' latest disaster, a 3-0 drubbing by the 12th place Columbus Blue Jackets, in which they were outshot by a ridiculous margin of 38-18. There is little that can be said about such a loss, besides the usual one-word headlines of "disgusting", "terrible" or of course "unacceptable", but this game was such a travesty of an effort by the Flames I feel compelled to unleash a rant.
Since 2002-2003, I have watched on TV, listened to, or attended nearly every Flames game. A ritual I used to hold was something I'm sure is a common one. For every game, even some meaningless April games back in 2003 when the Flames were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, I wore my Flames jersey and hat. I believe it was after 2006, however, that I either got lazy or gained a more existential perspective on things, and only wore the jersey in important, tough games, home games, playoff games, or games I was attending. Basically, I am not nearly as superstitious as I used to be, and when I don't wear the jersey and the Flames lose, I only even contemplate the jersey if they put in a great effort for three periods, and lose on pure bad luck, and even then I snap out of my delusion by reminding myself that, quite simply, it is utterly impossible for a piece of clothing to cause the puck to take a weird bounce, or the referee to miss a call, or whether a shot will hit the post, go wide or go in. And when the Flames play a game where they, say, get outshot by an obscene margin and get shut out by an inferior team? That's nobody's, or nothing's, fault but their own.
I was not wearing my jersey tonight. I don't think I have to tell you I'm not blaming that for the loss.
Yesterday, I wrote a blog post detailing what I thought the Flames would have to do to make the playoffs or win the division. If I was a more superstitious person, I would look back on that post, see how much I detailed the Flames' final nine games, all against the Northwest Division while leaving the next game against the Blue Jackets with just a few mentions, and think that perhaps I jinxed their effort. But as I noted, I am not superstitious, I am rational. The reason I didn't detail the Blue Jackets as much as the other teams, huge game though this was, was because while I was trying not to take anything for granted, I thought it very reasonable to assume the Flames would be able to beat a team that they were six ranks and 10 points up on, especially since they had beaten a team in a similar position the previous day.
Unfortunately, the Flames team seems to have made the same presumption going into the game.
This is the third game in less than a week in which the Flames have submitted a stinker to the NHL record books. Two consecutive collapses against Washington and Atlanta (the latter game being one of the Flames' worst efforts all season) were followed by a convincing win over the Blackhawks, a game I considered a must win. This game was a chance to salvage their easiest and most important road trip of the season, and put considerably less pressure on themselves heading into the 9-Game Northwest playoffs-before-the-playoffs that comprise the rest of the regular season. So what did they do?
This game looked terrible from the start (it's kind of unorthodox to take this long to actually get to the game summary, but this post's primary purpose is to rant), with Columbus forechecking the Flames to pieces early on, resulting on Rick Nash scoring the opening goal 3:26 in, a sieve goal allowed by Miikka Kiprusoff. As the period wound down with the Blue Jackets outshooting the Flames 7-4, I thought "If we lose this game, I sure hope that goal isn't the difference, because Kipper doesn't deserve to be blamed for a crappy team effort." Alas, Kipper's lack of statistical fault for the loss might have been the only remotely positive thing to come of the time. In the second period, the Flames hit two posts within as many shifts, but they wouldn't have deserved the goals anyway, as the Jackets outshot them 17-6. I missed most of the third period due to having to make a fast food run, and as I turned the radio back on, already frustrated by having to miss so much of the game because of an understaffed McDonald's with a long line, and discovered the Jackets were now up 3-0...my response was a bit like this blog post's tone except about 100x more profane and incoherent.
What is the definition of a team that makes the playoffs? In the NHL, it's a team that finishes in the top eight of its conference. This, of course, implies that this team is better than the lower eight teams. If you're a statistics person, the Flames have shown on this road trip that this is not necessarily true. Putting in the worst efforts of the season against two teams whose only goal at this point of the year is to play spoiler to teams hanging on a playoff spot or home ice advantage? It simply doesn't make them deserving of a playoff spot.
Last year, I predicted the Flames' humiliation in the first round before the series even started. (I've mentioned this several times so I hope I don't come off as repetitive, but it's one of the primary reasons I think the Flames are such a mediocre team). I predicted this not based on the fact the Flames were obvious underdogs against the conference champion Red Wings, but because the Flames had three chances to clinch a playoff berth on their own, against the Avalanche, Sharks and Oilers, and lost all three of them in regulation, only getting in because Colorado lost in the 81st game of the season. I was able to make that prediction on April 7th, the second last day of the regular season. This year, I'm stepping it up, and making the same prediction - only this time I'm making it with two weeks to go until the end of the season. It's incredibly pessimistic and cynical even by my standards to do so, but I considered this game to be the only thing that could put some semblance of reason into my heart's faith, and the Flames screwed it up as only a Calgary team can do.
Luckily for the optimists, the Flames can prove they're worthy of a playoff spot, perhaps even the division if you're a person who really likes to soak up the sunshine, through another means. Instead of proving they're better than the eight teams who won't make the playoffs, they will have to prove they are as good as the eight teams that make it. It doesn't make much sense but I could not be more literal if I tried, as the rest of the Flames' games are against the divisional rivals they are battling for a playoff spot: three against the Canucks, and two apiece against the Avalanche and Wild. The other two games are against the not-quite-dead Edmonton Oilers (the prospect of them coming back to steal the Flames' playoff spot is my worst nightmare, even though it's nearly impossible). I've used the phrase "most important game of the season" several times in the past few weeks, but I am going to predict right now that the ACTUAL most important game will prove to be the one on Friday, March 29th against the Oilers, in the Flames' final home game of the season. This is the most important for several reasons; the most important one being that, by that time, the Oilers will either be mathematically eliminated or battling hard to stage an improbable comeback. In either case, there is no other team that would like to spoil Calgary's playoff chances more than Edmonton. This is also, as I said, the Flames' final home game of the regular season before they head on a three game road trip to face the Wild, Canucks, and Avalanche, the road trip seemingly most likely to finally decide the division. The Flames' playoff fate could be decided the exact same way as last year: a loss in their final home game against Edmonton, but a simultaneous loss by the Avalanche could propel them into the eighth seed. Or perhaps the Avalanche would win this time, sticking the Flames where they belonged. Or the Flames could win and perhaps prove themselves to me, but that seems most unlikely given how the Flames are playing right now.
A final statistical note before tonight's rant signs off. After the game tonight, I realized I had miscalculated while determining the amount of games the Flames would have to win to get to 94 points, the common projection for the final playoff seed. I said they'd have to win 6 out of 11, when in fact they'd only have to win 5 out of 11, less than .500 hockey (making the broad assumption, of course, that that projection stands up.) Now, that number is 5 out of 10, exactly .500 hockey. Given the Flames' inconsistency, a 5-5 record is right up their alley.
Take that as you will.