Flames Thoughts: Can James Neal return to form in time for playoffs?

Calgary’s James Neal has been sidelined with a lower-body injury since mid-February, but he could return soon for the Flames, who would benefit greatly if Neal can return to form.

The Flames pulled away from the slumping Sharks with three straight wins, and will now host the Kings, Stars and Ducks during a three-game home-stand this week.

Here are some thoughts on where Calgary stands as the playoff picture settles into focus.

100-POINT PLATEAU

With Saturday’s hard-fought 3-1 victory over the Canucks, the Flames hit 100 points for the first time since 2005-2006 and for just the fifth time in the 46-season history of the Atlanta / Calgary franchise. It has been an incredible turn-around for the Flames, who are the most-improved team in the NHL this season with a +.161 point percentage (.512 last season, .673 this season).

On Mar. 24 of last season, the Flames were 35-31-10, and with 80 points, nine points out of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. One year later, the Flames are 47-21-7, and with 101 points and have a six-point lead on the Sharks in the fight for first place in the Pacific Division and Western Conference with seven games remaining in the regular season.

BANNER SEASON

While it’s (hopefully) far from over, it has already been a banner season for the Flames, in more ways than one.

On Mar. 2, the team retired the No. 12 of Jarome Iginla, arguably the greatest player in the history of their franchise.

The Flames are hoping to hang at least two more banners from the rafters of Scotiabank Saddledome at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season.

With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Flames have an almost insurmountable six-point lead on the Sharks in the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

To put it in perspective, if the Flames play .500 hockey and go 3-3-1 to close out their 82-game regular season schedule, the Sharks would have to go 7-0-0 to leapfrog them, finish first and avoid a terrifying First Round matchup with the red-hot Golden Knights, who are 10-1-1 since the NHL’s trade deadline. As a matter of fact, the Knights’ only regulation loss since Feb. 25 was a 6-3 setback versus the Flames on Mar. 10.

Strength of schedule should make it even more difficult for the Sharks to catch and pass the Flames. Five of the Flames’ last seven games are against teams in the bottom nine in the overall standings, while only two are against playoff teams. A huge thank you to Damian Echevarrieta (@Ech28) for Tweeting these charts, which make it really easy to follow the playoff races.

With three-straight wins, Bill Peters has the Flames trending in the right direction down the stretch. The same can’t be said about Peter DeBoer’s Sharks, who have lost five-consecutive contests for the first time this season. To make matters worse, the Sharks will have to try to stop the bleeding without their captain and leading goal scorer Joe Pavelski and two-time Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson, who remain sidelined.

While the fight for first is far from over, there’s a chance it could be, realistically if not mathematically, by the time the Flames face the Sharks at SAP Center in San Jose next Sunday.

THE RYAN EXPRESS

During our broadcast of the Flames vs. Senators game on Sportsnet 960 The FAN last Thursday, I told my broadcast partner Peter Loubardias that I couldn’t continue referring to Derek Ryan, Andrew Mangiapane and Garnet Hathaway the Flames’ fourth line. The threesome needed a nickname.

Earlier in the week I watched a great Netflix documentary series called Losers. The fourth episode, titled Stone Cold, featured curler Pat Ryan, who won back-to-back Labatt Brier Championships representing Alberta in 1988 and 1989. Ryan’s dominant team earned the nickname "Ryan’s Express". Ah ha!

Much like Pat Ryan’s team in the late 1980’s, Derek Ryan’s line has played with incredible consistency, efficiency and skill in the second-half of the 2018-2019 season.

Hathaway, who leads the Flames in hits, is great at take-out shots. Mangiapane, who has scored a goal in three-straight games, has been freezing goaltenders with his shots. Much like Pat, Derek is great on draws. Okay, enough curling analogies.

Maybe the nickname will stick, probably it won’t, but I simply can’t call Mangiapane-Ryan-Hathaway the fourth line anymore. The artists formerly-known as the fourth line, have played too important a role for too long and are one of the biggest reasons why the Flames have pulled away from the pack in their division and conference.

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THE REAL DEAL RETURNS

While James Neal hasn’t exactly lived up to his nickname this season, at least not yet, it sure was good to see him back in the line-up on Saturday night. After missing 17 games with an undisclosed injury, Neal has one shot and two hits and played 12:12 in the Calgary’s 3-1 win in Vancouver.

In hindsight, I can’t help but wonder if a late-season break will be just what the doctor ordered for Neal, both physically and mentally.

There is no doubt that participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last eight seasons, tied for the longest streak in the league, and in the last two Stanley Cup Finals — losing both — has taken a physical and mental toll on the 31-year-old.

Since getting injured on Feb. 14, Neal has recovered and rested. He’s also worked hard with Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan Van Asten to get into great shape for what he hopes will be a third-straight trip to the final.

Neal has also used his extensive experience to help his teammates, sharing with Flames players what it takes to win when the games get tighter and tougher down the stretch in the regular season and to an even greater extent in the post-season. As Brad Treliving told the media last week, Neal has been a great mentor for a number of Flames players, including Dillon Dube, who told Treliving that Neal has had a greater impact on him than any other player in his career — even after he was assigned to the AHL’s Stockton Heat. Good on him.

If Neal can find his scoring touch again, he will help the Flames at both even strength and on the power play, which has struggled to produce of late.

While there is no denying that it has been a disappointing season for the 10-time 20-goal scorer, who has tallied only five times in in 56 games, Neal still has a chance to be an impactful player for the Flames this season. Neal plays with a grit and heaviness and has playoff experience that Bill Peters’ squad doesn’t have a ton of — intangibles that tend to become more valuable when you’re trying to wear an opponent down during the course of a best-of-seven series.

I’m a sucker for a good story, and The Real Deal’s redemption is one that I hope to be telling come the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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