Calgary Flames

Flames Sunday Census: Calgary’s focus after clinching a playoff spot

Before their game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Calgary Flames expected it’d be a match where they’d have to win in order to clinch a playoff spot. However, thanks to the Edmonton Oilers beating the Vegas Golden Knights in regulation hours earlier, that was what mathematically clinched the Flames their spot and made them the second team in the Western Conference to do so.

Now that the Flames reached their very public internal goal of making the playoffs, the team can opt to focus on a few things before the playoffs start. What should they do? We asked, you answered.

Calgary’s clinching scenario

Currently, the Flames have 101 points in the division, the first team to break the century mark, and the Flames’ first time doing so since 2018–19. Obviously pandemic shortened seasons would prevent them from doing so anyway, but their point paces the past couple of seasons was well below their current one.

The Flames have gotten to where they are essentially with Jacob Markstrom taking the lion’s share and then some of possible starts. With 60 starts under his belt and a 35–15–8 record, only the Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck and the Nashville Predators’ Juuse Saros have had more starts.

So among playoff starters, besides Saros, Markstrom has been one of the busiest goaltenders heading into the postseason.

Elsewhere on the roster, the Flames have seen many of their regulars hit career-highs. This goes beyond their stars being top point scorers in the league in Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, but their depth players and defencemen are also setting career numbers too, like Rasmus Andersson, Dillon Dube, and more.

Now that they’ve done everything they’ve set out to do, they have a few areas to address before the playoffs officially start.

Clinching the Pacific Division

The Flames’ 101 points in 75 games played leads the second place Oilers’ 94 points in 75 games. The Flames have to win or the Oilers have to lose any combination of three games in regulation for Calgary to clinch the division.

Over the next few days, the schedule has the Flames playing a back-to-back against the Chicago Blackhawks followed by the Nashville Predators on Monday and Tuesday before the Edmonton Oilers are back in action against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday.

This would be the first opportunity to clinch if the Flames win their set and the Oilers lose. Even if it doesn’t happen, with seven games left in their schedule and six in the Oilers’, it’s extremely likely that the Flames can end up clinching before the season is up.

However, they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal and expect this to happen, especially since the Oilers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now. Winning the Pacific Division crown should be exactly what’s next on the Flames’ to-do list and they are in a good spot to control their own destiny to do so.

Resting before the playoffs

A lot of teams tend to give their banged up players some time off if they make it into the postseason early. However, this isn’t something the Flames will likely do too much of in the final set of games if at all. While it’s not out of the question for them to do, the team is still focused on improving.

Darryl Sutter has stated there’s still areas to clean up, Gaudreau has mentioned that he’s learned from 2018–19 the dangers of taking it easy before the playoffs after clinching, and as mentioned, there are still tangible things to play for like prolonged home ice advantage if they claim the division’s top seed.

The only player that should be getting rest at this point is Markstrom. With 60 starts in 75 games, that’s a mark of 80 percent of possible starts—an insane workload. Of course, this isn’t exactly news with Sutter behind the bench, who has historically depended on his starter to take some of the heaviest workloads in the NHL.

Markstrom actually tied his career-high in total games played when he hit the 60-game mark. He’s done so twice with the Vancouver Canucks in 2017–18 and 2018–19, in which the latter season also saw him start 60 games too. So Markstrom is undoubtedly going to surpass that and set a new career-high this season. There’s virtually a zero percent chance that Sutter will turn to Daniel Vladar to start seven straight games now, as keeping Markstrom sharp is a top priority.

That said, it’s a good a time as any to at least share the workload a bit more between the goaltending tandem.

Calling up prospects

The Flames have call-ups remaining and can elect to do so just to see where their prospects are. Of course, the Stockton Heat are poised for a playoff run of their own—being the top team in the whole AHL right now by points percentage.

With a good shot to win the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy before they start their run for the Calder Cup, the Heat might not want to see their best players get called up to the big leagues, even if it’s for one or two games.

The Flames have been one of the least willing teams to turn to their farm club to call up prospects all season long. Now that both the Flames and Heat are bound for the playoffs, it isn’t completely out of the question that a prospect or two could get a quick stint. But equally likely, the Flames might not make any call-ups as to not tweak either roster at all, and instead use the remaining games for both teams to prepare for the playoffs.

If they do call up players though, they should be looking at players like Matthew Phillips, Jakob Pelletier, Connor Mackey, or even a dark horse, Dustin Wolf. Again, with the reasons above, a realistic outcome would be no call-ups at all, or just one or two players for a max of one or two games each. It’d be surprising to see more than this.

Hitting career milestones

Sutter was recently discussing how the team was too focused on the individual accomplishments and forgot to play as a team for one another. While that may be the mantra he has instilled on his players, it’s undeniable that attainable milestones are still well within reach.

Most specifically, Tkachuk’s just four points away from hitting 100 points on the season, and putting together a season like this before contract negotiations come up really should be on the forefront of every star player’s mind.

Another player with a milestone in sight is Markstrom and the Flames’ shutout record. He’s been at nine shutouts for what feels like forever (his last came on March 12 against the Detroit Red Wings). In 14 starts since, he’s had three games of allowing just one goal. His next shutout would tie him with Miikka Kiprusoff for the franchise record, and he’s been tantalisingly close.

Neither Tkachuk nor Markstrom will admit to it, but these are real milestones that are worth celebrating if they do hit them, and both marks are realistically achievable.

On the topic of shutouts, the Flames are also quite close with the Carolina Hurricanes for the William M. Jennings trophy. The Hurricanes have paced the league as of late, but only one goal against separates the two teams (though the Flames have one fewer game played). A shutout for Markstrom—or even Vladar—would make for a strong case at this trophy too.

The work isn’t done yet

Clinching the playoffs was step one. And while all the focus should be on what to do to see playoff success, the Flames know they still have work to do in their final seven games. They won’t be a team to take things easy by any means, so we’ll see just exactly else they can accomplish as a team before the season is over.

What do you think the Flames should do with their final regular season games? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @wincolumnCGY.

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