Well, so much for dreams of a Pacific Division title, or home-ice advantage in round one. After a week of alternating wins and losses, the rear-view mirror is where the Calgary Flames’ attention is now focused.
Losing earlier in the week to a desperate LA Kings team (who have since been eliminated from playoff contention) was tolerable, but dropping last night’s game to the Ducks late in the third period is one that will sting for the Flames. Thankfully, retribution can be had tomorrow night when the two teams square off again in California.
The race for first in the division now looks to be a contest between those Ducks and the Edmonton Oilers, with the Flames now trying to keep pace with the San Jose Sharks for third place. More importantly, though, the team now finds themselves looking over their shoulder at the Nashville Predators, who sit just one point back with three games remaining.
The Wide Open West
The good news for Flames fans is that in this year’s Western Conference, the race is relatively wide open, and it’s plausible that any team – including Calgary – is capable of going on a deep run.
Playoff seeding, then, seems almost irrelevant at this point. Almost.
Right now, the gap between the second-place Minnesota Wild and eighth place Predators is only nine points. To put it in context, last year the same gap between second and eighth place was 20 points. Ultimately, there’s not a lot separating most of the teams in the west, save the Chicago Blackhawks.
That’s where this coming week for the Flames is so critical. Staying put in the first wild card spot means a likely matchup with the Oilers or Ducks, whereas falling behind the Predators and into the second wild card spot would guarantee a matchup with the Blackhawks. This Flames team is playing well, but let’s be honest, heading to Chicago would have the makings of an unceremonious playoff exit for Calgary.
With the recent struggles of the Wild and Sharks (not to mention the nasty knee injury Joe Thornton suffered last night), the Blackhawks really are the one legitimate cup contender in the West. So, if – and it’s a big if – the Flames can avoid the second wild card spot and stay within the Pacific Division, all four teams would likely have fairly even odds of reaching the Conference Final. From there, who knows what could happen.
Gut Check Time for Johnny Hockey
This shouldn’t come as shocking news to any Flames fan out there, but to this point in his young career, Johnny Gaudreau has established himself as a bit of a one-dimensional player.
Fortunately, Gaudreau’s ability to dominate offensive aspects of the game and produce at an elite level helps to offset his struggles on the defensive side of the puck. Still, a general disinterest in backchecking and defensive zone coverage does tend to rear its head from time-to-time. Last night we saw an example of this, and at the worst possible time:
Solid effort there. pic.twitter.com/6a0WF8na81
— . (@mikeFAIL) April 3, 2017
Sure, Gaudreau is hardly an imposing physical presence, but his issues defensively don’t come from his stature, they come from a lack of effort. Look at the above play. Once the puck is turned over, Gaudreau takes one stride after crossing the red line on the backcheck, and casually glides away from his man, Logan Shaw, who pots the game winner after being left alone in front.
The postseason starts in just over a week, and this team can’t have any passengers come playoff time, least of all a player of Gaudreau’s calibre and – frankly – salary. Look around the Pacific Division and try to find another top forward who so often takes such a lackadaisical approach to backchecking. You can’t. Not Connor McDavid. Not Joe Pavelski. Not Ryan Getzlaf. Not one.
It was putting up 78 points last season that earned Gaudreau his long-term deal, and he’s fought through cold stretches and injuries this season to continue to be an impact player on offense, which is a huge asset to the Flames. That’s all well and good, but this is the time of year where teams need players to be putting in their absolute best effort night in and night out, and it’s time for Gaudreau to have a bit of a gut check on what type of player he wants to be for the Flames not only this postseason, but for years to come.
The Week Ahead
And with that, we’ve reached the last week of the regular season. This time next week, we’ll be previewing the Flames’ first round matchup. Who exactly the team faces is entirely dependent on how they perform over these final three games.
The Flames will close out the regular season on a California road trip, starting tomorrow night in Anaheim, followed by a Thursday date with the Kings before finishing up Saturday night against San Jose. The team should be looking to win at least two of these games in order to feel confident that they will remain ahead of the Predators, and avoid that daunting matchup with the Blackhawks.
Should things start well against the Ducks and Kings, the final date in San Jose could also decide third place in the Pacific between the Sharks and Flames, and ultimately who each team will face in round one.
One week from now, will the team be packing their bags for the California coast, the shores of Lake Michigan, or a short trip up the QE2? Either way, playoff hockey is just around the corner. Buckle up.
Calgary-based writer covering all things Flames. Follow me on Twitter @glenneberth