Can Calgary really make the playoffs?
Not after Saturday's embarrassing loss at Boston, where they gave up three power play goals to a team that had been scoreless in its previous 22 attempts.
Not after a shocking lack of push back at any time.
How about after Sunday?
What a difference a day can make after a solid win in Washington - coupled with the Colorado Avalanche losing in San Jose. The gap seems possible to close. Their schedule this week is all they can ask for - catching the Coyotes on the second of back-to-back nights Wednesday, then a game in Colorado Friday.
The Flames have no back to backs for the remainder of the year, and the Avs' game in hand is a back-to-back - in Edmonton one night after playing in Vancouver. Calgary feels they have to run the table (and they might be right) so let's look at a couple players that may tip the balance for both clubs.
There has been so much written dissecting the game of Jarome Iginla. Let's face it, if he can't provide some form of offence in the last couple weeks of the season, the Flames are goners. Even though the stats tell us he is over 30 goals again, a remarkably steady flow of production over the last decade, it has been an uneven year at best. At 33, it seems more difficult for Iginla to create his own shot. In the past, a robust Iginla would get in on the forecheck, initiate some contact and spin to a soft area on the ice for his crisp release. It appears now as though his feet are heavy and he is not as effective getting prime scoring chances. I know he has 34 shots in his last 10 games, but he has only one goal to go with his four assists.
Against Washington, he took the initiative on the power play to shoot more off the half wall (and that helped on Ian White's power play goal) but there is something not all there in Iginla's game. The ferocity seems manufactured - like he is either mentally or physically worn down. He needs a spark - some help - and at this stage, can it come from Matt Stajan?
Stajan is a big stretch as a No. 1 centre and he too has been silent in the last 10 games with just five assists. Brent Sutter has moved people around on different lines - and the Flames got another great effort from Rene Bourque on Sunday - but there has to be more from the perceived top line. Jay Bouwmeester's third goal (first in 58 games) was welcomed as he drove the net and created a scoring chance. Where has that been? If it hasn't been there because he has been harnessed, then that's a systematic mistake. If it is because he simply has not got into the rush, then that is clearly on him. Bouwmeester has a much more complete game than he has shown at any time this year, he is too good to have just three goals.
I was once told by a Stanley Cup-winning coach that there comes a time in the year where, after you have tried to grind every ounce out of your team, it can't be coaches on one side of the fence and players on the other. It has to be everyone on the same side. Brent Sutter, along with GM brother Darryl, was clearly frustrated Saturday with the play of their top players. Detail, system and passion are earmarks of Brent's coaching and the Flames and their coach have to find a way to bring the same page to every game. There is not enough time to feel their way along anymore.
It's funny that expectations can alter the view so widely. No one expected the Avalanche to contend for a playoff spot. Yet here they are, four-point cushion, with a game in hand. They have the first tie-breaker (wins) in their favour as well. All seems well, except nothing is ever easy at this time of the year when you are near the cut line. The Avs have been below .500 since the Olympic break (6-7-1), and suffered a tough loss at San Jose Sunday (where the puck bounced all over the place around their net and ended up behind Craig Anderson in the oddest ways). The team is tied with Montreal in giving up the most shots on goal (32.1/game) of any team in a playoff spot and this is a dangerous way to play. Their penalty killing is atrocious, giving up 11 power play goals in their last 23 times shorthanded. And only two playoff teams - Washington (who seems to outscore any problem) and Nashville - are worse.
These numbers point to the biggest reason, in my opinion, for the Avalanche's success this season - and the reason to be concerned. Craig Anderson has been brilliant from Day 1, giving the team a belief that they can hang on any night, to the point where this young roster believes they should win. He is a battler, has had to fight his way to a starter's job after winding his way through the minors and having been through waivers a couple times.
He also has never played more than 58 games in any pro year. This year, Anderson will blow by 70 starts and there have been some signs lately that fatigue is creeping into his game. In his last seven starts, he has given up at least three goals - with more than a couple that haven't been highlight reel material. Combine that with the number of shots he faces nightly and the Avs have to hope like heck that Anderson can level off his play again. Their coach Joe Sacco says the Olympic break gave Anderson the rest he needed, so the last two-plus weeks will tell the final tale.
1) Steve Downie sure has come a long way since the chaotic end of his junior career, a 20-game suspension early in his pro career and the look that he would be an undisciplined player. He has toned down the goofy stuff. Not since Theo Fleury in 2001-02 has a player had 20 plus goals and 200 plus penalty minutes until Downie accomplished it this year. I have been impressed with his play, how he forced coach Rick Tocchet to find him more ice time and how he has fit in with Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. Those two players get the lions' share of the headlines, but Downie has been another bright spot on a season that imploded after the Olympic break in Tampa.
2) The Sharks have won four straight after an 0-5-1 stretch that was as badly played as it was uninspired. The same questions will hang around the Sharks necks until the playoffs, and only then can they be answered. Are they too nice or too soft? Todd McLellan has moved players around to the point of playing Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau on three different lines in the last week. Can their defence hold up in the playoffs? They aren't the quickest group, and outside speed or a quick cycle might be too much for this group over the long haul.
3) As the Hawks look for their right form, they too are a bit unsettled. Back-to-back losses to Columbus will do that, but it has been more prolonged than that. They have given up three or more goals against in seven of their last 10 games and they miss Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson on the back end. Campbell is out until mid-playoffs and Johnson, acquired for Cam Barker from Minnesota, hasn't played in a couple weeks with a suspected concussion. Coach Joel Quenneville broke up his all-star defence pair of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith recently, looking for a bit of balance. Mix this with their long running goalie saga and it is not out of the realm that the Hawks could stumble. It does appear as Antti Niemi has grabbed the starters' job and he has zero playoff experience.
Hi Ray -
Since your playing days, how much more “rigid” have the end boards (or for that matter) the boards around the whole rink have become? Any how much more have they contributed to the increase (and severity) of injuries involving even normal “hard” checks into the boards?
I remember back about 10 years ago, the Nassau Coliseum used some kind of “spring” or “shock absorber” system in the corners to allow the boards to “give somewhat” – you are familiar that at the Coliseum the fans do not sit right on top of the end boards - like most of today's newer arenas – allowing the arena the ability to modify their system, I suppose, since they have more space to work with. Again, back around 10 years ago I believe Montreal and/or Toronto switched to the total “seamless” glass all around the entire rink – better view for the fans, but I remember the broadcasters made the comment about “hitting into a cement wall” with this configuration – with no “give” whatsoever. I think the Devils did the right thing by installing the “older” style metal stanchion/glass combination behind the boards at the Prudential Center for that reason...
Thank you. Greg - Holbrook, NY
There is no question that the boards and seamless glass are far more rigid than when I started. The old Auditorium in Buffalo was almost cushy on the boards - great sound as well when a player was hit on the boards! Funny note about that rink. The teams came on the ice at the same end of the rink through different doors. At the Sabres door, their trainers would stand and watch the game. When the Sabres were shooting at that end, when they would dump the puck in, the trainer would kick the bottom of the boards and if he timed it right, the puck would shoot out into the slot. Home ice advantage! Several teams are starting to go back to partitioned glass as they try to find the balance between fans' vision and player safety.
With Boston having the Leafs' first-round pick this year, I have been pleased not to hear the usual debate about what sort of effort they should make to avoid finishing last. I always hate that talk because I think every team should play to win, or at least give their best effort, every time they hit the ice. And I find it distasteful when the media suggests otherwise, to be honest. This year's situation has me thinking about the draft lottery, etc. What do you think of the idea that the teams that come closest to making the playoffs should have a chance at the top pick? I think this might provide great incentive to compete right up to the end, while removing the incentive to tank in hopes of picking higher.
When the media suggests that players are not trying so they can get a higher draft pick, they are about as far in left field as they can be. Now management can choose to play a bunch of young guys under the guise of getting them experience - and they are getting experience - but any player in the lineup doesn't care about the draft pick mainly because he might not be around to see the pick play. You know the line, "We are making a change....and you are it!" That can and does happen a lot. I don't have a problem with all non-playoff teams getting a chance at the lottery, but I do understand the want to have the worst teams choose higher in the hope that they can be competitive again quickly.
Got a question for Ray? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!