The Calgary Flames have had a fantastic first half of the season. But the chances of them extending the life of their 2018-19 campaign may be contingent on whether or not they can win the Pacific Division.
The top of the Pacific Division has gone according to plan so far this season, with Calgary, Vegas and San Jose holding down three divisional seeds. The surprising piece has been the ordering, with the Flames taking full advantage of early season hiccups from their divisional competitors.
Not surprisingly, the heat has been dialed up. Despite playing at a 107-point pace (and 115-point pace over the last 25 games), the Flames have little breathing room atop the standings. That’s because the Golden Knights have been on a tear, acting as the hottest team in the league not situated in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area. And the Sharks have been nearly as good.
If you look at a rolling 10-game point pace, you can see how Calgary – despite playing so well for much of the season – has seen its advantage in the standings erode. Although they’ve slowed of late, it’s really been about the surge from their competitors:
There’s nothing wrong with a great three-team race. Unless, of course, you remember that the NHL’s current playoff format has a mandated two-versus-three scenario in every division. That’s worth keeping in mind for every division, but it seems particularly noteworthy in a division where two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders sit behind division-leading Calgary. Fall to second, and you all but guarantee yourself a first-round matchup with one of those two teams.
But that’s not all. Not only do you want to avoid one of Vegas or San Jose, but the one-versus-four matchup looks increasingly appetizing. Potential candidates include the Dallas Stars (+4 goals on the season), the Colorado Avalanche (+15 goals on the season), and the Anaheim Ducks (-19 goals on the season). Emphasis on the last team there, because they currently sit in the last wild-card spot and would draw into a potential matchup with the conference leading Flames, a team that’s net 49 goals better.
Let’s express this probabilistically. Right now we have Calgary in a head-to-head with Anaheim. If we look at relative goal advantage as a proxy for the probability of a team advancing, we can simulate a series thousands of times and look at the distribution of Flames advancement scenarios. Against Anaheim, they look phenomenal. They even look credible against other wild-card options. That advantage wanes against divisional opponents:
Your probabilities may vary depending on your input variables, but generally speaking any mathematical model is going to be really cool on Anaheim (and to a lesser extent Dallas). The key takeaway here is how significant the disparity is as it pertains to advancement. Against the Ducks, the Flames have a 3-in-4 chance of winning. Against the Stars or Avalanche, it’s about a 2-in-3 chance of winning.
Against the Sharks and Golden Knights it’s close to a coin flip. That’s also operating under the premise that the Flames would hold onto the two seed and have home ice. It’s certainly plausible that they could slide as far down as three considering the strength of both the Sharks and Golden Knights of late, and to that end we might start looking at them as a head-to-head underdog.
The good news is the Flames have played well most of the season and by most simulations appear to be a lock to reach the playoffs. Now the pressure is on to finish in the best possible position to make a deep run come April. That starts with winning the Pacific.