After struggling out of the gate this season, the Flames are lucky to still be in the playoff hunt. Now, in a tight battle with Montreal and Edmonton for one of the highly coveted playoff spots in the North Division, an opportunity arises. Two games against Montreal, possibly the most ‘catchable’ team in the race. It all might come down to this. Two wins put the Flames in legitimate contention, and two losses could dash the hopes of the squad once and for all.
As it stands now, the Flames are on the edge of the playoffs, one of three bubble teams vying for the the final two playoff spots in the North Division. Considering their recent body of work and inconsistent first half to the season, much of the credit for their proximity to the playoffs must go to the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.
These two teams have done the Flames several favours so far this season by beating the teams closest to them in the standings, allowing the Flames to not fall out of contention even with the lackluster start they’ve had. But squeaking by at nearly .500 while being just effective enough against the right teams isn’t a recipe for long term success, or achieving a playoff spot, and the Flames know it.
The Flames still being in the race also speaks to the division as a whole. The playoff race is tight, but really only among three teams, Calgary, Edmonton, and Montreal. Toronto and Winnipeg are comfortably in playoff positions, and Vancouver and Ottawa are well out. There is no avoiding the need to start picking up wins, and there’s no more important time to do so than against a rival in the playoff hunt, when a win not only strengthens the Flames position, it also takes away potential points from a rival.
With two recent losses against Edmonton, the head to head matchup with Montreal becomes even more important. The Flames are firmly last among the three contenders as it stands now, and can’t afford a losing record against both Montreal and Edmonton.
The Flames have played more games than Montreal, and must look like a prime opportunity for them. While these two games for Calgary could mean the difference between making it in or missing, likely Montreal sees their chance to create a gap between them and the next two teams, creating some breathing room as the late season stretch begins.
To make things more difficult for Calgary, Montreal plays Vancouver twice between now and then, a prime opportunity to strengthen their position before these vital meetings. It will be a tall task for the Flames to stay in the race this week, and the games against Montreal cannot be overstated.
To add to the drama, it will be the first time Darryl Sutter paces the Saddledome bench this season. The next few days leading up to the matches against Montreal will be Sutter’s first few with the team in person, and it will be fascinating to see how the team performs on Thursday night.
A strong effort and a win could set the precedent for the second half of this season just as easily as a poor one, and there is precious little time left for recovery after bad games. How the team answers the bell for their new head coach for the first time will set the pace for the remainder of the season, and fans should keep a close eye on not only the score, but also the intensity the Flames play with throughout.
On the other bench, Dominic Ducharme, the division’s other mid-season replacement coach, leads the squad. Both coaches are tasked with turning around underperforming teams, and both now face a major challenge against each other in the playoff race. No doubt they, and their teams, will both be aware of the gravity of the situation as they take to the ice at the Saddledome later this week.
Both teams are in the brief window of identity establishment that follows a coaching change, but with it being Sutter’s first two games, it’s that much more meaningful for the Flames. Will they show up as the team most pundits and fans thought they would be before the season, or is it going to be more of the same? Will whatever changes Sutter chooses to make be enough?
These identity-forming questions need immediate answers for a team who seems to constantly struggle to have an identity. If they haven’t been answered by the end of the series with Montreal, don’t expect them to be at all this season. If the team can’t perform when the chips are down, the only identity that can be formed is one of underperforming, something the team is already dangerously close to.
The time is now
At the end of this two game set, it will be the halfway point of the season for the Flames, with 28 games played. Generally speaking by the half way point, the standings are fairly well established, unlikely to see dramatic upheaval in the playoff picture.
Two wins would go a long way in settling the nerves of Flames fans everywhere. Notably, the series after the two game set with Montreal sees the Flames take on the Oilers in two straight. If the Flames want to make those games meaningful, they have to start with wins against Montreal to keep the playoff race close.
If they fail, suddenly they are in a win-or-die situation against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, a position no one wants to be in, especially when the best player on the planet is equally desperate for a playoff spot. The pace set against Montreal will dictate expectations for those next games against Edmonton, and every following game.
As Milan Lucic said, “buckle up”. It’s crunch time.
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