The Calgary Flames caught a fairly big break last night, as the Vancouver Canucks were whipped in Phoenix by the floundering Coyotes, ensuring the Flames keep for the time being their slim three point lead on the Northwest Division. How much does the Canucks blowing an easy opportunity and lowering the magic number by two points mean for the Flames? It helps a small bit, but I am still somewhat pessimistic to say the least. It may mean the Flames have to win one less game to win the division, but they are still going to have to have a good winning percentage for their final 11 games. The Flames must dig themselves out of the large hole they've dug if they want to win the division, and if they want to prove that they truly are contenders.
How did things ever get this far? Just weeks ago, the Flames' division lead was as high as 10 points (maybe more, I can't remember). The causes behind the mess the Flames find themselves in are simple. Bad defense and inconsistent, mediocre goaltending are the reasons the Flames have gone 4-6 in their last ten, losing embarrassingly to teams such as Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Toronto. One leads to the other: bad defense means more shots on goal, which leads to a tired Miikka Kiprusoff. I count three games this month that I consider Kipper directly responsible for losing – the 5-2 loss at Atlanta, the 3-2 loss at New Jersey, and Friday's disastrous 3-2 loss to St. Louis. In his other two losses he has been mediocre at best, and has been yanked in all but one of his 5 losses this month. It raises an interesting question: is the bad defense causing Kipper to look tired? Or was Mike Keenan's insistence on only resting Kipper once a month bound to produce this? Whatever the case, the Flames need Kipper or his defense around him, preferably both, to get some Red Bull injected into their veins. It has been a question since the start of the year, and quite simply the Flames are not going anywhere if they cannot get Kipper on his world-class game.
The schedule makers have not done the Flames any favors for this crucial final 11 games. The Flames' opponents include Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Columbus, and their 80th game is a visit to the Canucks which seems a good probability to decide the division, just as their 80th game last year in Minnesota decided the division. Meanwhile, the Canucks themselves have a criminally easy schedule, with only three of 11 games against teams currently in the playoffs (Edmonton, Calgary and Chicago). It's clear that if the Flames want to prove themselves as the true contenders so many people made them out to be (especially after Darryl Sutter's bold moves at the deadline) they have to do it now. The magic number to beat Vancouver is 19 (perhaps 20) points. This means that, at the very least, the Flames would have to win 5 games and Vancouver would have to lose 5 in regulation. What's more likely though, given how Vancouver is playing, is at least 7 wins and 2-3 Vancouver losses. A record of 7-3-1 in their final 11 games and 2 Vancouver regulation losses would give the Flames the division – but ONLY if the Flames won the final game vs. Vancouver in regulation. If the Flames went 8-2-1 – a huge request I know, but I am only crunching numbers - Vancouver would have to win 10 of their final 11 games, including the Calgary game, to win the division (however, if they lost that game in overtime or shootout, they would win the division). These are scary numbers. But I don't think they can be disputed. This is what needs to happen for Calgary to still win the division. Unless Vancouver slows down, there is no other way.
Those who have read my blogs know how pessimistic I can get. Up until this month, I have been forced to admit I was wrong about pretty much everything regarding the Flames that I said in the offseason. As a result, I have grown a lot more optimistic. However, the numbers are there for everyone to see. The Canucks are showing no signs of slowing down, and the Flames are looking like every inconsistent Flames team we have been used to in previous years. In my opinion, the Flames will either prove or disprove that they are contenders in these final 11 games.