The surprising Calgary Flames are now in playoff bubble trouble, barely clinging to the last wild card berth in the NHL's Western Conference.
A bit of good news on an otherwise glum morning for Flames fans: Sportsclubstats.com, a site with algorithms that predict playoff possibilities, loves Calgary's chances to make the cut this spring, pegging the Flames at a solid 77.1% if they simply maintain their current winning percentage.
Sounds easy, right? Truth is it will be anything but, as Thursday night's 5-3 loss to the Kings reminded them. That one was more than a squandered opportunity to put some distance between themselves and a fast-gaining rival. It was also a grim reminder that the Flames are barely clinging to the second wild card berth in the tightly packed Western Conference. And even the slightest stumble could drop them into the draft lottery.
To their credit, the Flames have been remarkably resilient this season. Outside of one dismal stretch in December, they've managed to avoid the sort of skid that could send them skidding over the cliff. But will that consistency be enough to put them over the top? Let's look at the factors that could keep them in the mix or send them home early.
Send them home: #fancystats
At 5-on-5, the Flames have the third worst Corsi For percentage (44.5%), attempt the third fewest shots (averaging just 24.7) and take more face-offs in their own zone than any team not based in Buffalo (35.7%). They also boast the league's second highest shooting percentage at 8.96, a rate that they have to at least maintain if they hope to survive while generating so few scoring chances.
No way to sugarcoat it: Those underlying numbers paint a picture of a team that's due for some serious regression. But even if the Flames manage to limit the damage to a slight deviation from their so-far impressive run, that might open the door wide enough for their pursuers to slip by.
Keep them in: #realstats
The foundation may be shaky, but the Flames look pretty solid in the numbers that matter. Even after Thursday's loss, Calgary has a 17-5-1 record against its Pacific Division rivals. The Flames ahve also rung up 23 wins against the Western Conference, a total matched only by the first-place Predators. So they're not just winning games. They're taking away points from the teams they're battling for position.
Send them home: Slow starts
In a league where comebacks are hard to stage, the Flames have dug themselves into some deep holes with their slow starts. Outscored 47-31 in first periods and 54-49 in seconds, they spend too much time playing catch-up instead of dictating the pace.
Keep them in: Fast finishes
Gotta give 'em credit—there's no give-up in this bunch. Not only are they the league's most dominant team in third periods—scoring a league-high 69 goals and allowing a league-low 38—they're killer in overtime, going 7-2. Only the Islanders, at 5-0, match that differential. And while they don't enter the third with a lead often (only Arizona and Buffalo have done it fewer times then their 14), the Flames are one of just two teams that are perfect when they do. (Chicago is the other.) They also top the charts with nine wins when trailing after two.
Send them home: Center depth
There's not one playoff contender that dresses a less imposing group than Calgary's top four of Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and Josh Jooris. They lack everything you're looking for down the middle: size, experience, prowess in the dots, a dominant offensive presence. Some of that may come over time, but it won't come in time for this stretch drive.
Keep them in: Goaltending
What a difference a confident veteran between the pipes makes. Two seasons ago, the Flames were buying red light bulbs by the gross as Miikka Kiprusoff aged out. They allowed 3.27 goals per game, 28th in the league. Last season wasn't much better (2.90, 24th). But with the off-season acquisition of Jonas Hiller, they finally have the stabilizing presence they've lacked since Kipper's better days. Averaging just 2.56 goals-against per game, they sit 11th in the league. They still have their rough nights—Hiller was lit up for five goals on 40 shots before being yanked midway through the third period against the Kings—but their netminding is good enough to keep them competitive on those nights when they spend too much time scrambling around their own zone.
Mixed Bag: Their schedule
If they're going to pull this off, they could use some help. Of Calgary's 27 remaining games, just seven involve teams that are within five points of them in the standings. After hosting the Canucks this Saturday, and the Wild next week (2/18), they'll have to wait more than a month before they again meet the Wild (3/27), Stars (3/25, 3/30), Kings (4/9) and then the Jets (4/11) in their regular season finale.
They also have 11 games against the Eastern Conference, a group against which they've struggled.
But on the bright side, they have 12 dates left against teams that are currently out of the playoff mix. Take care of business in even eight of those and they're in good shape down the stretch.
Keep them in: Unsung heroes
While Norris Trophy favorite Mark Giordano and Calder candidate Johnny Gaudreau draw most of the attention, the Flames have thrived on contributions from the chorus line. Lance Bouma could probably walk unrecognized down the Red Mile wearing his own jersey, but he's arguably been Calgary's best skater over the past five weeks. The 24-year-old winger was named one of their game's Three Stars five times during the month of January and has emerged as a reliable third line threat. Paul Byron has been a defensive whiz, punching way above his weight. Curtis Glencross, back from a spell on IR, brings speed, grit and a consistent effort to the top-six. And Jiri Hudler, committed to shooting more often, has quietly emerged as a capable first-line winger. It's not a group that will sell a lot of tickets, but they will win their share of games with discipline, smart two-way play and a surprising dash of creativity.
Keep them in: A resurgent penalty kill
Playing a man down has been a problem all season for the Flames, whose kill currently ranks 23rd in the league with a 79.2% success rate. But the unit is coming together at the best possible time, going seven straight games without allowing a shorthanded goal after shutting down the Kings on three chances Thursday night. That success, after months of struggle, is something a team can build on and give it an edge down the stretch.