Monday, February 8, 2010

Crunch time

In 2004, Darryl Sutter motivated his Flames team, largely made up of grinders and checkers, by dividing the remaining games left in the regular season into seven-game playoff series. In each series, the team had to win four games with the reward being a playoff seed. With a hard working, never-say-die mentality, they approached each and every game as if it was a must-win. It was this strategy that not only got the 2003-04 Flames into the post-season, but prepared them for their lengthy run to the Stanley Cup final and made them virtually unstoppable throughout four rounds of playoff hockey.

Making the playoffs this season will be one hundred times more difficult than it was six years ago. This is a new era. We're talking about a Calgary Flames team that is only ten points ahead of the fourteenth-place Blue Jackets, six points ahead of twelfth-place Anaheim, and four points clear of the Dallas Stars. On top of that, they have to contend with other teams in their division as well as teams that are, admittedly, more skilled, faster, and younger than themselves. It would seem that now more than ever, a resurrection of the "mini-series" strategy is required.

The Flames now sit in an extremely precarious position. Theoretically, they could catch Vancouver, sitting only five points behind, but having played two games more than the Canucks. A lot of things would have to go right for that to happen, however. In a less-than-ideal situation, the Wild, currently five points back of the Flames, could catch their division rivals with a hot streak of their own. For a team whose mettle has long since been in question, especially with the recent personnel changes, separating themselves from the pack and making the post season will be a very difficult task for the Flames.

After semi-encouraging victories against the Hurricanes and Panthers, Saturday's overtime loss against a slightly better Tampa team in the same position as the Flames was a major letdown, especially considering that it was Daymond Langkow's 1000th game, against the team that drafted him. They controlled the play for fourty minutes, holding the Bolts to only ten shots on goal, and carried a one-nothing lead into the third period.

The Lightning poured on the pressure to start the period and tied the game before the two-minute mark of the third. After that, the Flames completely fell apart. Playing on back-to-back nights, some fatigue was to be expected, but not when they had played so well for two-thirds of the game. Tampa spent what seemed like the majority of the period in the Flames' zone, outshooting them 13-6 and scored a goal that should never be scored to win the game in overtime when Andrei Meszaro's shot found its way between Kiprusoff's arm and the post.

All this on top of a cheap shot by Kurtis Foster, who blind-sided Rene Bourque coming out of the penalty box, causing the Flames forward to miss time with a shoulder injury. Losing Bourque doesn't hurt as much now as it would have without the recent additions to the team, but the Flames still lose one of their best and most consistently competitive players for an unknown amount of time. There was no penalty on the play and it appears Foster will escape further punishment. Typical.

Every point the Flames can earn is of critical importance, so I won't complain too much about an overtime loss, but I'll take a win over a loser point any day.

Finally, I'd like to offer my condolences to Brian Burke and his family after his son Brendan was killed in a car accident this weekend. I really can't imagine a pain greater than losing a child. Brendan aspired to a career in professional hockey like his father, and was best known for his dedication to making sports more tolerant and accepting of homosexuality. He was a brave, smart, and courageous young man whose work should never be forgotten and will hopefully be built upon. Wrap Around Curl has a lovely tribute to Brendan over at Pension Plan Puppets and on her own site as well. Donations can be made in his name to either PFLAG (Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Canada or the Xaverian Leadership Institute.

Up Next: The Flames visit the Senators tomorrow evening (5:30PM, Sportsnet) to conclude their three-game Eastern road trip. Jamie Lundmark will draw into the lineup with Bourque out.

Go Flames Go.


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