While sneaking into the bottom rung of the playoffs is something to be eschewed in the NBA given that it rarely leads anywhere, there’s still a perception in the NHL that all you have to do is “get in.” The NHL has dined out for decades on the idea that the playoffs set everything anew, and that one hot goalie can upend six months of evidence of what teams really are. That isn’t necessarily the case, though it does happen rarely. But you’d have to go back to 2017 to find a proper Stanley Cup Final (get the fuck outta here, 2020 and 2021) to find a team that really came from the clouds (the Predators, who were then put in their place by the still-regal Penguins). Yes, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights got to the Final in 2018, and an expansion team by definition comes from the clouds, but they also won their division that year. It just doesn’t happen in the NHL as much as they want you to believe. Fuck, the standings are jerry-rigged with three-point games and shootouts and overtime losses to keep as many teams as near to those bottom playoff spots as possible to live the false dream.
That doesn’t mean teams still don’t live by that credo, especially ones trying to claw a wildcard spot, which brings us to the Calgary Flames. At the start of last week, they probably thought they were in a decent enough spot to land the last wildcard. They were a point behind the Jets, but had the perfect schedule to close out the season. Three layups against the Hawks, Canucks, and Sharks, and two games against their direct competitors, the Jets and Predators. You can’t really ask for more.
Instead, the Flames stumbled and barfed their way through the home game against the Hawks like a freshman looking for the bathroom, getting pretty well thwacked more than the 4-3 scoreline would suggest. They followed that up by seemingly pulling it together, maybe out of sheer shame, to beat the Jets 3-1 in Winnipeg to at least keep their playoff hopes alive. Again, all they really needed to do was beat the most wayward organization in the league, the Vancouver Canucks. They lost in a shootout (this is a continuing theme, and we’ll get back to it). With their playoff dreams now on life support, last night provided a chance to at least defib them for one last gasp through the end of the regular season. They could also wipe out another pretender in the Predators. And they did show some grit, coming back twice against Juuse Saros to send the game to overtime at 2-2…only to lose in a shootout. And now they’re toast.
The easy narratives to grab for are, one, this team is sick of playing for its coach, Darryl Sutter. And that probably has some truth to it, because the Flames did look uninterested in a lot of games this season and Sutter wears on his players pretty quickly with his direct and acerbic nature. The dude won two Cups with the Kings, and the very next season the players were locking him out of the dressing room. He hasn’t had near the success in Calgary to stretch out his welcome with his charges, and this is what you get.
The other low-hanging fruit is that the Flames simply couldn’t overcome the loss of Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, even with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri brought in as replacements. And again, there’s something to that. The Flames have currently scored 36 fewer goals this term than they did last, as Huberdeau and Kadri haven’t come anywhere near their predecessors’ production. The Flames have had far more trouble this season generating chances and goals from around the crease, an area that Tkachuk especially made his very unkempt office.
But Kadri was never going to do that kind of work, he’s a center after all, and really a checking-plus center. While he exploded for 87 points last year for the nitrogen-infused Avalanche, the 55 or so points he’s currently on is what he’s been for the rest of his career. Huberdeau is most certainly not the 115-point revue he was last year, and has seen his production on the power play crater (38 points last year versus 15 this year). Sutter didn’t use Huberdeau as much on the PP as the Panthers did last year (2:55 per game as opposed to 3:41 last season), and the Flames couldn’t throw it in the ocean anyway when up a man.
The other simple explanation is that the Flames goalies sucked, which they did. Neither starter Jacob Markstrom nor backup Dan Vladar managed a save percentage over .900 and both were underwater when it came to goals saved over expected. The Flames kept “Krusty is coming!” themselves all season with Markstrom given how good he was last year, or maybe because of how much they’re paying him. Flames fans are not going to be able to keep from wondering what would have been if the team had simply called up Dustin Wolf, the AHL’s best goalie this season by some distance. But Sutter would eat his own face, which he kind of looks like he’s already doing, than start a rookie goaltender most of the time.
But it isn’t so simple. By the metrics, the Flames were still one of the better possession teams around, as Sutter teams always are (second in Corsi-percentage, third in expected-goals share per NaturalStatTrick.com) Yes, they were let down by their goalies, but even with that it shouldn’t have dropped them out of the playoffs completely given how stout they were with and without the puck.
No, the Flames were undone whenever a game went over 60 minutes, and they suddenly turned into confused sloths. The Flames lost 17 games this season that went into overtime or a shootout. The only other team over 14 was San Jose. They won seven games. Merely even these numbers out, and the extra five points would comfortably have them in the wildcard spots.
It would be easy to point to Markstrom’s and Vladar’s struggles as the reason the Flames kept sucking pond scum in overtime and the shootout. You could point to less lethal finishing as the reason they couldn’t win more, or indeed avoid overtime altogether by winning more games in regulation. These aren’t necessarily wrong, but they contain medium levels of horseshit.
3-on-3 and the shootout are merely gimmicks meant to entertain the braindead fan, and have no bearing on how a team is built, run, and plays. They’re a coin flip, a random chance that the NHL is basing playoff spots and seeding on. Thanks to the cap, very few if any teams are so wildly more talented than the rest, and injuries flatten that out even more. The Flames were undone because a couple rebounds off their own odd-man rush led to an odd-man rush the other way, or by some move an opponent was able to pull off in an exhibition that they’d never be able to use during an actual hockey game. It’s black magic.
The Flames will probably try to make serious changes in the offseason, and that may include punting Sutter back to the farm. They’ll have to find a way to get Wolf into the crease, even if that means trying to find a home for Markstrom’s salary. How many of these decisions would they be making if only a handful of random bounces went their way?