The aftermath of the Calgary Flames' 6-2 embarrassment at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks last night (the game itself really requires no explanation or analysis), should be as clear as day, even to the most tragically optimistic Flames fans: far from winning the division, the Flames must now, just as they did last season, focus their efforts and worries primarily on simply clinching a playoff berth. The loss took away the one advantage of a game in hand that Calgary had over division rivals Minnesota and Colorado, making it mathematically impossible for Calgary to win the division without help from those two teams. But although Calgary could still win the division, it is clear from the Flames' effort last night that Flames fans shouldn't worry about next season's home opener puck drop being delayed for 15 minutes (as Darryl Sutter summarized what winning the division meant back in 2006). Instead, the Flames are now in legitimate danger of actually losing their playoff berth, something even I wouldn't admit prior to last night's game.
The two games in hand Calgary had on Friday meant that if they won 4 of their last 5 games, they would win the division no matter what Minnesota or Colorado did. But they blew both of the games, and dropped from sixth to seventh. Meanwhile, the division became Minnesota's to lose as they took a 4 point lead over Colorado and a 5 point lead over Calgary with two games left. More importantly to Calgary, the Canucks, Oilers and Predators established a furious three way battle for the eighth and final playoff berth. Leaving Calgary just two points ahead.
A rant about the Flames' inconsistency and destiny to be eliminated in the first round (their only remote hope of advancing being the possibility of facing the Wild in the first round) is nothing new to come from this blog. But this is uncharted territory for me, for the most part: what if the Flames miss the playoffs altogether? The Flames would just plain outdo themselves on the mediocrity scale.
The Flames' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is four, which requires at least two wins unless Nashville loses one game and Calgary wins one (which is far from a safe wager given how easy their remaining schedule is). Speaking of that schedule, though, let's compare Calgary, Vancouver's and Nashville's:
Calgary has three games remaining, all on the road, against (in order) Edmonton (who beat the Flames on Saturday to stay alive, although one more loss and a Nashville win eliminates them), Minnesota (who now need just two points to clinch the Northwest) and Vancouver (who despite their free falling managed to humiliate the Flames last night and regain their playoff berth). Not one of these games is remotely easy in contrast to Nashville's remaining schedule. I could easily see the Flames losing all three of these games, and that's not just my extreme pessimism speaking. The statistics speak for themselves: neither the Flames nor the Oilers have a decisive advantage in their season series (the Oilers have a 4-3 advantage after Saturday's game), and even if they win this game, Minnesota will be in a position to clinch the Northwest in their final home game against Calgary, which I think renders the season series moot (despite the Flames' decisive advantage over Minnesota, most of their wins were by one goal). And because of Nashville's easy schedule, the Canucks will either be hanging on for dear life (or looking to clinch) the eighth seed, or simply looking to play spoiler to the Flames. Either way, they hold the most decisive advantage over the Flames, season series wise, of any team in the Northwest.
Vancouver has three games remaining, all of them at home. The first is against Colorado, against whom they have already lost their season series. The second is against the Oilers, who, if not eliminated by this point, will be looking to play spoiler, just as they almost did last year against the Flames. The final is against the Flames, as I previously indicated and detailed the implications of. The maximum number of points the Canucks can get is 94. Now here's where things genuinely reach a crisis for the Flames.
Nashville has three games remaining and are one point out of the playoffs. Among the three teams contending for the final playoff berth, they have by far the easiest schedule: first they visit the Blues, then they host the Blues and then finish out the regular season in Chicago. None of their remaining opponents are going to make the playoffs (Chicago is three points away from being eliminated). The maximum number of points Nashville can get is 93.
Calgary has 90 points. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out they are the odd man out if the odds work. Simply put, they cannot be relying on other teams to lose this time. At least last year, when the Flames got in the playoffs as the eighth seed despite losing all three of their final games, they got in because challenging Colorado lost to a playoff team. This year, their challenger to take their playoff spot has all of their games remaining against teams that won't make the playoffs. The fact is, the Flames need at least two wins out of three games to make the playoffs. I do not expect Nashville to lose.
Here's the worst case scenario. The Flames only win one of their remaining three games and ends with 92 points. Vancouver wins two of their last three and ends with 92 points, beating Calgary because of the season series, which they have clinched no matter what happens. Colorado wins one of their final two, against either Vancouver or Minnesota, to finish above both teams with 93 points. And Nashville wins all three of their remaining games to finish with...93 points. The final Western standings look like this:
2. San Jose
To add insult to injury, if the Oilers win both of their games and Calgary loses all of theirs, Edmonton finishes above of Calgary in the final standings.
Usually, worst case scenarios are very unlikely. But in the Flames' case, it is alarmingly likely, as the statistics speak for themselves. It is time to face reality here. The Flames are not going to win the division, even though it may look easy to still do on paper. (See my addendum at the end if you're still delusional enough to believe so). They are an utterly inconsistent, mediocre team with no defensive depth past their top two defensemen, a one-line team because Kristian Huselius is so streaky, and are doomed to lose when dominated as a team unless both Miikka Kiprusoff is a brick wall in net and Jarome Iginla is a one man force. Anyone who believes otherwise is completely delusional, and the only thing that would make me change my mind would be if the Flames got into the playoffs, and either made it to the third round after defeating Minnesota in the first round, or defeated a team other than Minnesota in the first round (read: San Jose or Detroit.)
If you had told me on April 7th of last year, after the Flames clinched a playoff berth because of Colorado's loss to Nashville, and I was predicting the Flames would be clobbered by Detroit, that at this time of the year in 2008, the Flames would do even worse down the same final stretch, and actually miss the playoffs, I would not have believed you. Surely Darryl Sutter would improve the team enough to be a legitimate top three team. Surely he would replace the inexperienced Jim Playfair with a coach who could keep the team consistent (note: I think Mike Keenan has done the best job he could with the talent he has, even though I think most of his criticism of Kipper has been uncalled for). Surely, surely....the visionary who came to tell my 2007 self of the Flames' future would have said "Nope, and don't call me Shirley."
As fans of a professional sports team, there is always a certain amount of faith that has to exist for you to be a true fan, and believe me, if the Flames do manage to make the playoffs, as pessimistic as I am I'll still cheer like any other playoff series, like I did when the Flames made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, four years ago, and I knew the Flames were underdogs and the Calgary tire company promising free tires if the Flames won the Cup was making an easy wager and the Flames had already had a successful season by making the playoffs. But the sad fact is, it just might be better for the Flames' long term future if they missed the playoffs altogether this year. Even the most optimistic Flames fan should know, regardless of how they think Calgary will finish, that the team will look radically different, especially in the top two lines, next season due to cap issues and pending unrestricted free agents the Flames can't afford. The question is, how radical will the mini-rebuild be? Since 2004, the Flames, to my knowledge, have been a near sellout pretty much every home game. But how much money would they lose with no playoffs? That's at least two full sellout playoff games that would go down the drain. Perhaps missing the playoffs would pressure Darryl Sutter to make some more drastic moves this summer. After all, we're due to see how Sutter fares in his most important job as a GM - building for the future through the draft - next season, with a likely forced youth movement (incidentally, The Hockey News ranked Calgary 25th in the league in prospects, urging them to draft a legitimate top six forward soon).
I have written off this Flames' season as a failure, largely, and looked to next year for a month now. With the Flames' loss last night, it should now be official: it's not a matter of if, but merely a matter of when Flames fans can look to the future after their third straight year of disappointment.
(Addendum for the tragically delusional: on paper, winning the division is not as hard as I've implied it is for the Flames. The ONLY way it can happen is for the Flames to win all three of their remaining games, and for Minnesota to lose both of theirs - one of which is against the Flames and the other against Colorado. But those are the two key words: on paper. The Flames will not win the division. Period. Look to cracking the 7th or 8th seed. I am so sure of this I'm prepared to take wagers, but I don't have a credit card so it can't be anything material. But I would bet money if I could, that my favorite team would NOT win. Did I mention how easily we could lose our playoff spot?)