The easiest part of the Calgary Flames schedule was the three weeks leading up to the Olympic break.
They wasted it in disappointing fashion, which put the Stampede City’s hockey heros are in the mess they’re staring at today — on the outside of the playoff picture.
It’s a mess they don’t appear capable of digging out from.
Not the way they’re going.
Certainly not the way life is shaping up for the two clubs closest to them in the quest to be among the Western Conference’s elite eight: the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings.
Before considering what’s ahead of the Flames between now and the regular-season finale, starting with Wednesday night’s clash at the Colorado Avalanche, look back at where they stood heading into the final week of January.
Despite a 9-1 hammering at the hands of the San Jose Sharks and, a few days later, a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks which stretched their winless skid to six games, the Flames were still staring at a legitimate playoff position.
In fact, they remained in contention to have home-ice advantage in the first round.
Why the confidence? They had 11 games on the docket heading into the break, and only three were against clubs sitting in playoff positions.
It’s not like those games were against world beaters, either.
It was a golden opportunity to pull out of the skid, build momentum with more than a half-dozen wins and sit strong heading into the post-Olympic push.
Instead of going on a winning streak, the Flames posted a disappointing 4-4-3 record and were sitting ninth by the time they suited up for the first time after the Olympics.
Curiously, it’s the same spot where they now find themselves.
With 13 games remaining, the challenge to climb back into the top eight is all the more daunting.
For starters, none of the teams they’re chasing appear interested in doing them any favours.
The Nashville Predators had racked up six victories in nine games prior to Tuesday night’s clash at home against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Detroit Red Wings have won seven of their last nine, including the crucial 2-1 victory over the Flames Monday night.
Colorado has a nice little cushion. The Avs were on the verge of falling a couple of weeks ago, but regrouped to win three of four heading into Tuesday night’s game against St. Louis.
Looking forward, the situation doesn’t become any prettier for the Flames.
Of the baker’s dozen worth of games which remain ahead of them — eight on the road, five at home — nine are against teams currently in the playoffs.
Two are against a Colorado team which has won all four meetings this season, two more against the powerful San Jose Sharks, another is against a Chicago team which has owned them the past few seasons and a road date against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.
At the best of times, it would be a tough schedule.
Considering how the Flames are struggling in every area at this time — other than the goaltending provided by Miikka Kiprusoff — they’ll be hard-pressed to skate to a .500 record and it’s tough to believe 90 points will be enough to earn a ticket to the playoffs.
Barring a complete collapse by the Avalanche, Red Wings or Predators, and there have been no indications of that happening, the Flames must rack up as much as 10 wins in those 13 outings to be a playoff team.
Even then, they’ll be looking for help.
Don’t bet on either happening.
Looking at the Avalanche
Colorado has well-earned space between itself and the chasers, and could very well need it.
The Avs have 13 games remaining in a tough schedule, starting with the St. Patrick’s Day home date against the Flames.
Eight games are against playoff teams who won’t fall out of race: Three against Los Angeles, two versus San Jose and single dates with Phoenix, Vancouver and Chicago.
Colorado’s Pacific Division-heavy schedule also includes a pair of games against the Anaheim Ducks, although that’s a team which has truly disappointed since the Olympic break.
Curiously, the Avs have only four games remaining against fellow Northwest Division squads, and two are against the Flames.
Colorado has not fared well against teams other than Calgary, having posted a 9-9-2 mark in intra-divisional play. The Edmonton game may be an easy win, but the Flames do have a chance to give themselves some hope, or at least play spoilers in a pair of games which should be heated.
It’s hard to believe the Avalanche will fall out of a playoff spot, but should the Flames, Wings and Predators go on a tear and the Avs stumble and bumble, it’s possible a great season could end in disappointment.
Not likely, but possible.
Looking at the Predators
Heading into their home date Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Predators were maintaining their position as the NHL’s ultimate survivors.
Despite being a small-market, small-payroll squad, the Preds remain poised to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
They dropped the puck with Philadelphia having won six of nine games to hold the seventh slot in the Western Conference.
Regardless of the outcome, the Flyers are among the final few tough games remaining on the schedule for the Predators.
Only five of Nashville’s final 12 games are against teams currently in playoff spots: one clash with Los Angeles and a pair of games against both Detroit and Phoenix.
Nashville is a consistent team whether at home or on the road — they’re one of only six teams to have won 20 road games this season — but has the extra benefit of only four more games are road clashes.
The potential for negatives exist in the fact they play three times against a St. Louis Blues squad which still has a chance and will fight to the end, and two games against a hard-charging Detroit team.
Looking at the Red Wings
The season-long injury woes appear to finally be behind the Red Wings.
The news just keeps getting better for the 2008 Stanley Cup winners and defending Western Conference champions.
Their last 10 games were a stiff test and they managed to go 7-2-1 with wins over Ottawa, Colorado, Nashville, Chicago, Minnesota, Buffalo and Calgary, while dropping games to Vancouver and Calgary, plus a shootout defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks.
It’s a much easier schedule ahead of the Red Wings, who haven’t missed the playoffs since 1991.
A pair of games against the last-place Edmonton Oilers are pretty much freebies. They also have three meetings with a Columbus Blue Jackets squad which is 14th in the West.
Detroit’s final 13 games does have a couple of solid tests — a game in Vancouver, then home two days later to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Stanley Cup rematch, plus a game in Philadelphia on the second half of back-to-back nights and a regular season finale against a Chicago squad which could be in the hunt for top spot in the conference, if not the league.
Should the Red Wings make hay in those games against the weak sisters, they’ll set up themselves to not just make the playoffs, but also to overtake Nashville when they have those two head-to-head games.
The Playoff Push — four teams, three spots
(84 pts., 39 wins) * prior to last night
Schedule difficulty: 4 mountains to climb out of five
March 17 vs. Calgary Flames
March 21 at Anaheim Ducks
March 22 at Los Angeles Kings
March 24 vs. Los Angeles Kings
March 27 at Phoenix Coyotes
March 28 at San Jose Sharks
March 31 vs. Anaheim Ducks
April 2 vs. Calgary Flames
April 4 vs. San Jose Sharks
April 6 at Vancouver Canucks
April 7 at Edmonton Oilers
April 9 vs. Chicago Blackhawks
April 11 vs. Los Angeles Kings
(81pts., 38 wins) * prior to last night
Schedule difficulty: 3 mountains to climb out of five
March 16 vs. Philadelphia Flyers
March 18 vs. Minnesota Wild
March 20 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
March 21 at St. Louis Blues
March 23 vs. Dallas Stars
March 25 vs. Phoenix Coyotes
March 27 vs. Detroit Red Wings
March 29 at Florida Panthers
March 30 vs. Los Angeles Kings
April 1 vs. St. Louis Blues
April 3 at Detroit Red Wings
April 7 at Phoenix Coyotes
April 10 vs. St. Louis Blues
DETROIT RED WINGS
(80 pts., 34 wins)
Schedule difficulty: 2 mountains to climb out of five
March 19 at Edmonton Oilers
March 20 at Vancouver Canucks
March 22 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
March 24 vs. St. Louis Blues
March 26 vs. Minnesota Wild
March 27 at Nashville Predators
March 30 vs. Edmonton Oilers
April 1 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
April 3 vs. Nashville Predators
April 4 at Philadelphia Flyers
April 7 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
April 9 at Columbus Blue Jackets
April 11 at Chicago Blackhawks
(77 pts., 34 wins)
Schedule difficulty: 4 mountains to climb out of five
March 17 at Colorado Avalanche
March 19 vs. San Jose Sharks
March 21 at Minnesota Wild
March 23 vs. Anaheim Ducks
March 25 at New York Islanders
March 27 at Boston Bruins
March 28 at Washington Capitals
March 31 vs. Phoenix Coyotes
April 2 at Colorado Avalanche
April 4 at Chicago Blackhawks
April 6 vs. San Jose Sharks
April 8 vs. Minnesota Wild
April 10 at Vancouver Canucks