At this point it seems like the last time the Calgary Flames played hockey it was 1997. The Flames are in the doldrums of their mandated break and it’s now Day 8 of their CBA imposed work stoppage, which is where this season can go in two different directions. It can continue it’s current upward trend OR it can become the dumpster fire that it turned into last season after their prolonged rest.
Remember that dark time? Calgary was riding high on a seven game winning streak and were sporting a respectable 25-16-4 record. The Flames secured that 7th straight victory with a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes and it was off to a six day vacation in the middle of January (oddly enough after a 6 day break for Christmas). January 14th would be a bright day in the Flames season, January 20th would be the start of the end of the 2017-18 Calgary Flames.
When the Flames returned to the ice they dropped their first game, a 2-1 SOL, to the Winnipeg Jets. No worries. Then they would fall to the Sabres, Kings and Oilers, all in OT or a shoot out as well. All in all the Flames would follow up a seven game winning streak with a 6 game losing streak and in the blink of an eye, the season was gone. From February 3rd until the end of the season (30 games) the Calgary Flames would not win more than three games in a row (only once), but would suffer a four and seven game losing streaks as the season wound down. Mike Smith got injured and returned and wasn’t the same. David Rittich, who stared in a backup role was no good as a starter. Jon Gillies? Nope. Micheal Ferland who was having a career season only scored two goals from January 20th until the season ended on April 7th. The Flames went from 25-16-4 before the mandated break to 37-35-10 when the season came to an end with a 7-1 throttling of the Vegas Golden Knights. If you’re good with the math you’ll know that going 12-19-6 isn’t any way to finish off a season.
So why bring up this painful memory? Well, the Flames are close to coming out of the break and while things are drastically different this year, they need to come out strong. No one saw the Flames being the juggernaut that they currently are, but the expectations are now through the roof. Forget sneaking into the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Forget just getting past Round 1. The season the Flames have put together as of now is win the Pacific, win the West and it’s Stanley Cup Finals or bust.
Calgary holds a six point lead (71-65) over the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division for first place and guess who they play three games after coming back? Yup, the Sharks and San Jose should be fired up after Sam Bennett’s late game hit on Radim Simek in an 8-5 Calgary win back on December 31st. Calgary’s first five games back from the break see them play the Washington Capitals (no Ovechkin, suspension), Carolina Hurricanes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning with only the Sharks game being at the Saddledome. The Flames will play six of their first seven games on the road, which isn’t really that bad seeing they are 16-9-0 on the road, good for second place with only the Maple Leafs’ 17 road wins ahead of Calgary. San Jose’s first five games see them taking on the Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. The Flames clearly have the tougher start.
When you look at the Western Conference, the Flames have a “nice” five point (71-66) cushion over second place Winnipeg as both teams start up the post All Star break. Winnipeg comes back with the Boston Bruins (4-3 OT win), Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens. Not exactly an easy stretch for the second place team in the West and the Flames and Jets don’t meet again until March 16th.
What does any of this mean? What it means is the Flames need to continue to play strong and not let the break have lulled themselves into a sense of complacency. Yes, they have leads in both their division and conference, but they have to keep the pedal to the floor. Injuries and some bad luck did the Flames in last season and those are the two wildcards as the Flames round the corner to their final 31 games of 2018-19. If everything stays status quo, they keep getting all star caliber goaltending from David Rittich, the top line keeps lighting up the league, Mark Giordano continues to defy Father Time and (fingers crossed) they stay healthy, Calgary should be in a very favorable spot come April 6th. If any of that goes slightly off the rails we will see what kind of team this really is. Last year’s version folded rather quickly and looked like they were packing it in when things got tough. The 2018-19 version of the Flames doesn’t appear to be that type of team and they appear to be more mentally tough than the version from just a year ago. They also aren’t playing for a lame duck coach who was on the hot seat so they have that going for them.
Hopefully there is no repeat of a “post break collapse” from 2018, but if there is it can be blamed on one thing and one thing only: Calgary played the Hurricanes and won in their final game before their mini vacation, just like last season. But that’s if you believe in that type of stuff...because we don’t...well, we don’t think so....right? It can’t happen again?