Holding a four-point lead in the Western Conference seems like a cavernous divide considering how close the race has been the past few months.
With the Calgary Flames sitting four points clear of struggling playoff-chasers Minnesota, Anaheim and Nashville and riding a 20-6-6 post-Christmas surge, playoff action appears imminent in Cowtown.
If the season ended today Calgary would have a first-round showdown with the San Jose Sharks, but with plenty of time left in the season and certain movement among the top-eight, what possible matchup would be the most favourable for the Flames.
If you’re basing it on Calgary’s success against any of the teams reasonably within the hunt (seeds one through 11), the ideal match would be either Nashville or Dallas, as the Flames have run the table (7-0-0) against them this season with one left versus the Stars.
As the Canucks have virtually locked down the No. 1 spot, the Flames and Stars would have to finish fourth and fifth respectively for this dream scenario to come true, which seems unlikely the way both Calgary and Chicago, the current four-seed, have been playing of late.
So how about that bout, then; the battle of the ‘C’ cities?
Although they’ve gone blow-for-blow with the defending Cup champs (2-2-0) this season and match up quite well in most statistical categories, drawing last year’s winners would be a rocky psychological mountain for the Flames to climb.
If Calgary draws Chicago in the opening round it better hope it can snag home ice advantage, as both the Flames and ‘Hawks are among the league’s elite in their own barn, with neither beating the other on the road this season.
But goodness, that would be an incredible war between two of the game’s best captains.
If the red-hot ‘Hawks fail to catch Detroit and Calgary falls down a spot to seventh, Flames-Wings would make for an intriguing and familiar quarterfinal contest.
The Flames have not fared well against the veteran-savvy Wings this year (0-2-2), but when they’re fully healthy not many teams do.
Stacked up front, the Wings own the league’s most potent offence and can match the Flames in that department. But where Calgary has the upper hand is in goal, as Miikka Kiprusoff has proven in the past he brings his ‘A’ game in the post-season, registering 25 wins, a 2.32 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and six shutouts in his 52 game playoff career.
Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard, on the other hand, will be participating in only his second post-season and while a solid young goalie, doesn’t have the same acumen as his experienced teammates and could be the weak link.
San Jose and Vancouver could be the other potential matchups and both would provide energetic, hard-nosed hockey.
If the season ended today, San Jose would be Calgary’s draw and that’s not a bad thing. While Niemi has a Cup ring to his name, he has struggled against the Flames this year, sporting a paltry 4.03 GAA and .850 SP despite picking up two wins, with one coming in the shootout.
If the Flames can get to Niemi like they have in the regular season, they should have no trouble sinking the Sharks.
Although it’s possible Calgary could slip to eighth, it seems unlikely at the moment, making a Northwest showdown to kick things off a bit of a stretch.
But if it does shake out that way, it could be a banner year for either team based on historical precedence.
The last three times these teams met in the playoffs was in the quarterfinal, with each series going seven games and each game seven being decided in overtime.
And the winner of those epic Calgary-Vancouver first-round nail-biters would eventually go on to the Stanley Cup final (Calgary, ’04 and ’89 and Vancouver ’94).
So who do you want in the quarters, Flames Nation?