Sutter says Flames have their work cut out against the Habs' 'big, veteran defence'
It may be the last meaningful hockey this iteration of the Calgary Flames will play.
As a season of unfulfilled expectations continues, Calgary hosts the Montreal Canadiens at the Saddledome in an absolute must-win three-game series starting Friday night.
Montreal (20-15-9) sits eight points ahead of Calgary (19-23-3) for the final playoff spot in the North Division with a game in hand. With just 11 games remaining in their 2020-21 schedule, the Flames absolutely need a sweep to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. The Flames lead the season series 4-2.
Best-case scenario? Calgary wins all three games and pulls to within two points of the Canadiens and Flames Nation is engulfed with renewed hope next week – at least until they factor in the Vancouver Canucks.
The Canucks (18-19-3) sit just two points back of Calgary and 10 behind Montreal and have five games in hand on the Flames and four on the Canadiens after Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
Due to a COVID-19 outbreak in which 21 players and four coaching staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, Vancouver played its first game since March 24 on Sunday before suiting up again Tuesday, sweeping the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs.
Worst case? The Flames’ playoff hopes are effectively extinguished by either the Canadiens or the Canucks – Calgary and Vancouver meet four more times next month – and the focus turns to the future.
“I think for most guys, everyone’s tuned in to what’s going on and exactly what needs to happen,” said defenceman Chris Tanev this week.
“It’s hard not to know where you are,” said captain Mark Giordano. “We’re playing in a Canadian market, in a Canadian division, social media, all those tools you have now to know exactly what the percentages are with where you are in the standings. It’s easy to follow and I think you should know as a player where you stand.”
The Flames are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Senators on Monday, while the Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 on Wednesday.
Given the magnitude of the games in a shortened 56-game season, it’s likely that Jacob Markstrom gets all three starts for the Flames. After a rough stretch following his return from the injured reserve list, the 31-year-old Swede has improved as of late. Over his past five starts, he’s stopped 101 of 109 shots while allowing just eight goals.
Meanwhile, with Carey Price concussed and on the mend following a collision with former Flame Alex Chiasson in Edmonton on Monday, it looks like Cayden Primeau will get at least one start in the Canadiens net during the series.
The significance of the upcoming games – tonight, Saturday and Monday – may transcend a playoff berth for the Flames.
Coming into the season, the organization knew it would be judged on whether it could exorcise ghosts of playoffs past and win a series for the first time since 2015.
Clearly, the past few months have not gone according to plan, and this series against the Canadiens is likely the final chance for the Flames to salvage this year.
Otherwise, it’s anticipated that the Flames will make major changes to their roster, including possibly moving one or more players from a core group that includes Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Rasmus Andersson.
With the only guarantee in Calgary being that Darryl Sutter will be behind the bench come the next training camp, this series versus the Canadiens could be the last glimpse Flames fans get of this group playing meaningful hockey together at the Saddledome.
SPARKS OFF THE FIRE
-The Flames are middle-of-the-pack in most NHL categories under Sutter, but actually lead the league in one area: shot attempts allowed. Since the coaching change in early March, Calgary has allowed the fewest shots against per game, at 26.1.
-A cause for concern for the Flames as they ponder a roster remodel: Only Elias Lindholm (62nd) is among the top-100 NHLers in even-strength points this season.
-Everyone has more time on their hands these days because of the pandemic, and that includes NHLers. Tanev has spent part of it taking online university courses to chip away at his degree.
“Took me 10 years to go back to school, but once the pandemic hit I had a lot of free time on my hands,” he laughed.