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Flames road to playoffs in peril?

by Corey Masisak
If the Stanley Cup Playoffs began tonight, the Calgary Flames would be preparing to play the Vancouver Canucks.

Alas, the NHL postseason does not begin for nearly a month and the Flames have a lot of work to do to be part of the 16-team party. While the Flames currently sit eighth in the Western Conference with 81 points, there are a few factors working against them and the path to retaining their current position in the top eight is not likely to be an easy one.

Calgary's two biggest problems on the ice are recent play and injuries. The Flames have lost three straight games, all in regulation, for the first time since mid-December. Two of those three losses came to the Phoenix Coyotes and represent the four-point difference in the standings between the two clubs (the Coyotes are fifth with 85 points).

"I'm not going to sugar coat it, we've lost three in a row now at this time of the season — it's unacceptable," Calgary coach Brent Sutter told reporters Tuesday after a 4-3 loss to Phoenix. "We're at a critical point in the year and when you’re at a critical point you need to play with a huge urgency and I didn't think we had it here tonight."

The Flames have been without Brendan Morrison since March 2 because of a swollen knee, and are now without David Moss indefinitely because of an ankle injury. That's two of the team's top eight scorers and has forced rookie Mikael Backlund, who turns 22 on Thursday, into the No. 1 center role between Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla.

Calgary has enough adversity to overcome, but the Flames have only 10 games left to play. Every other team in playoff contention in the West has at least one game in hand on Calgary. Nashville, currently in ninth place and one point behind Calgary, has two games in hand. Anaheim is two points back with three games in hand.

The Predators are 8-8-4 since the All-Star break. Project that pace out and they would finish with 92 points. However, Nashville has nine of its final 12 games at Bridgestone Arena where the Predators are 17-8-7 this season. Factor in the home/road ratio and 94 points looks like a solid projection for Nashville. The Predators also have four of their final five contests against Colorado, Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis -- four the bottom six teams in the standings.

Anaheim has an extra game on Nashville, but the Ducks have a tough closing schedule. The Ducks have 6 of their 13 contests are at home, but 11 of the 13 games are against the nine teams currently ahead of them in the Western Conference.

The Ducks are 9-7-1 since the All-Star break. Using either projection method (post-ASG pace or home/road), Anaheim settles in somewhere between 93 and 94 points.

So a 6-3-1 finish for Calgary gets them to 94 points. The problem then becomes the tiebreaker. The Flames have only 28 non-shootout victories, which puts them behind Nashville (29) and well behind Anaheim (33). Should the Flames and Predators finish the season with the same number of points and non-shootout wins, Calgary does hold that tiebreaker thanks a four-game sweep of Nashville this season.

Six of Calgary's 10 games are on the road. One positive is four of the Flames' remaining games are against Colorado (twice), St. Louis and Edmonton -- the bottom three teams in the conference. Two of their games are against Anaheim and Calgary has one each at San Jose and Los Angeles.

The problem for the Flames is they have lost six straight games to the California trio and have not won in the Golden State this season. The two games against Anaheim will be critical (March 20 in Anaheim and March 30 in Calgary), and the three contests in four nights in California (March 20, 21 and 23) could be a defining stretch.

It certainly looks like 7-3 (and 95 points) could be the minimum for the Flames to stay ahead of Nashville and Anaheim in the race for the final spot in the West. It is possible one of the teams in front of them slumps, but 93 or 94 points could end up leaving the Flames agonizingly short of a tremendous comeback after being in 14th place in the West in late December.

"There are 10 games left in the season and we still have time," Sutter told reporters. "Teams have games in hand on us and we need to start winning some games and getting some points or we will find ourselves on the outside looking in quickly."
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