SUN Hockey Pool

March madness meltdown

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

Monumental is the best way to describe it -- although there've been a few other choice words thrown out there the last couple of days.

The Calgary Flames collapse has taken them from the top of the Northwest Division -- with a sizeable lead -- to a tenuous hold on home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

If the pattern continues over the next couple weeks, the Flames could find themselves visiting a hostile United Center in Chicago, where things haven't gone well for them this season.

Losing 15 of 28 games in two months, they watched their 13-point lead over the Vancouver Canucks dissolve as gradually and inevitably as an Everlasting Gobstopper. And the result is as painful as biting into one of those rock-hard candies.

How did it happen? How could it? Essentially, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Flames.

Their powerplay was a disaster in February, scoring just five times the entire month.

When that unit doubled its production in March, the penalty kill -- which has been one of the best in the league most of the season -- took a nosedive. And neither seemed to click at the same time, nor when needed most. Offensively, the Flames have been fairly consistent. It's the only facet of their game that can lay claim to that description.

Averaging 3.07 goals for per game in February and March, it's the goals-against that has contributed most to the downward spiral. Even after losing four straight games to kick off the month of February, the Flames had a solid grip on things.

Winning seven of their next nine, and earning points in every single one of those games, they appeared to be back on track. The lead had only dwindled to 10 points by that point.

March madness is the only way to describe what happened next, as the Flames dropped nine of their 15 contests -- easily their worst month of the season. And at the worst possible time.

It takes two sides to create a comeback as remarkable as the one made by the Canucks.

Credit the crew from the West Coast for their role.

Knowing they had to be spectacular over the final couple of months just to get back into the playoff race -- let alone compete for the division title -- the Canucks outdid themselves by winning 20 of 26 games. Not only were they consistent after flipping some sort of switch following the all-star break, but they got better as the days rolled by.

Their offensive production went down a little, but the Canucks found a way to significantly improve their defensive game.

Part of that was goaltender Roberto Luongo finding his groove after missing a big chunk of the winter with a groin injury. He averaged just a couple of goals against per game in March.

But it wasn't all shutdown defence. The Canucks had to dig deep to find ways to win.

Struggling in gut-check games has been a problem for the Flames, aside from their spectacular comeback in the 6-5 shootout win over the Red Wings in Detroit last month.

So now they are the ones chasing the Canucks, looking for another comeback of sorts.

One point behind heading into tonight's clash against the Stars in Dallas, there's still hope the Flames take the title that looked like a sure thing at the all-star break.

It's not nearly the obstacle their rivals were facing back then. But now that they've got the lead, the Canucks might not be as generous as the Flames were.

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA

ANATOMY OF A COLLAPSE

CALGARY

FEBRUARY

RECORD: 7-4-2

GAMES PLAYED: 13

GOALS-AGAINST: 33

GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: 2.54

GOALS FOR: 40

GOALS-PER-GAME AVERAGE: 3.07

POWERPLAY GOALS FOR: 5

POWERPLAY GOALS AGAINST: 7

MARCH

RECORD: 6-9-0

GAMES PLAYED: 15

GOALS-AGAINST: 57

GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: 3.80

GOALS FOR: 46

GOALS-PER-GAME AVERAGE: 3.07

POWERPLAY GOALS FOR: 12

POWERPLAY GOALS AGAINST: 18

VANCOUVER

FEBRUARY

RECORD: 9-2-0

GAMES PLAYED: 11

GOALS-AGAINST: 28

GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: 2.54

GOALS FOR: 38

GOALS-PER-GAME AVERAGE: 3.45

POWERPLAY GOALS FOR: 12

POWERPLAY GOALS AGAINST: 10

MARCH

RECORD: 11-3-1

GAMES PLAYED: 15

GOALS-AGAINST: 30

GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: 2.00

GOALS FOR: 48

GOALS-PER-GAME AVERAGE: 3.20

POWERPLAY GOALS FOR: 13

POWERPLAY GOALS AGAINST: 9


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