The 2015-16 season has been a rollercoaster of emotions for the Calgary Flames, and after a strong December, which saw them win nine of 12 games and seemingly right the ship, the team is floundering once again.
With 44 games in the books, the Flames are now tied with the Edmonton Oilers for last place in the Western Conference, with both clubs sitting at just 43 points thus far. Calgary may boast a small lead over Edmonton in that their 20 wins trump the Oilers’ 19, but the distinction offers little solace.
The road back to the playoffs isn’t completely lost yet, however. The San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes sit second and third in the Pacific Division race with just 49 points apiece. Calgary has the pieces necessary to close that six-point gap over the course of the rest of the season, especially with neither Arizona nor San Jose looking like a sure thing just yet.
But the Flames may have a bigger issue on their hands. While on paper it seems they have the potential to flip the script and fight their way back into a playoff spot – just as they did last season, and started to do in December – the team has exhibited one key flaw up to this point. Though they’ve posted convincing victories over strong teams, Calgary continues to lose crucial games to clubs in their own division.
As it currently stands, the Flames hold a subpar record of 4–8–2 against Pacific Division teams – the worst in-division record of any of the Pacific teams. Two of those wins also came way back in the first month of the season – they beat Vancouver in their second game of 2015-16 (three days after losing to them in the opener) and then topped Edmonton in the last game of October.
Since that victory on Halloween night, the Flames’ results against Pacific teams have been far less impressive. Calgary lost all three of their divisional games in November during a five-day stretch that saw them fall to Anaheim, Arizona and San Jose by a combined score of 12–6.
The Flames then rebounded slightly in December, winning their first two divisional games (against San Jose and Edmonton) before losing back-to-back tilts to Anaheim and Los Angeles to close out the month.
But January has been a significant step backwards in this regard. Even with the Flames’ current position in the standings making clear the fact that they must string some wins together to salvage their season, the club has gone 0–3 against Pacific teams so far this month.
Things haven’t been altogether terrible. Calgary’s first two games of January saw them beat Colorado and Tampa Bay by a combined score of 7–1. They also stomped the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers by a score of 6–0 on January 13th, yet the Albertan squad has still repeatedly come up short in their in-division contests.
That ineffectiveness could prove crucial in the Flames’ quest to earn a playoff spot this season. Holding a losing record at the campaign’s halfway point is problematic enough, but coming up short in divisional games, wherein a loss not only strips you of two potential points but also grants two to teams vying for the same three playoff spots, is potentially season-altering.
It’s that last factor that holds the most weight for the Flames. Unlike the Eastern teams battling for playoff spots – who have the option of either earning a Wild Card spot or a divisional spot – the Flames’ only chance at the postseason seems to be a second or third-place finish in their own division.
The fortuitous Western Conference alignment has been the only thing keeping them alive thus far, as five of the West’s top six teams are all in the Central Division. While the field has evened out slightly over the past month, the wild card slots still seem out of reach for Calgary, with strong Central teams like Minnesota, Colorado and Nashville standing in their way.
The Flames also have to deal with the fact that the sleeping Anaheim Ducks have awoken from their early-season mediocrity and are now on an absolute tear. No team in the league has won more games than Anaheim since the beginning of December – the Ducks are 16–4–1 in that span, and continue to climb the Western charts – throwing yet another significant wrench into the Flames’ playoff hopes.
One key thing to note is the fact that Calgary didn’t have this problem at all last season – in fact, it was their strong play against divisional rivals that fuelled their storybook run to the playoffs.
In 2014-15, the Flames posted a dominant 22–6–1 record against Pacific teams, continually capitalizing on those crucial “four point” games to keep their season alive. Their in-division record finished as the best among all Pacific clubs, and the second-best record against one’s own division posted by any NHL team (after the New York Rangers’ 23–6–1 record against the Metropolitan).
Needless to say, it’s been a different story this season. The Flames have already lost more games against teams in their own division than they did all season long in 2014-15, and the result has been a widening gap between them and a return to the playoffs.
Clearly, righting the ship in this area will be essential for the Flames from here on out. Their toughest test looks to be in February, when they face seven games against Pacific Division clubs. None of those games are against the Oilers, meaning all seven contests will either allow the Flames to rack up much-needed points, or will gift those points to teams already above them in the standings, widening the gap even further.
The Flames managed to clinch a playoff spot last season by winning their final four divisional games, and they’ll need to rediscover those same clutch tendencies down the stretch this season if they hope to stay alive past the second week of April.