EDMONTON — It’s hard to know which team is a more realistic goal for the Calgary Flames to chase down for the final playoff spot in the North.
The Flames trail Montreal by six points, but the Habs have four games in hand. Meanwhile, they are even-up in games with the Edmonton Oilers, but 10 points in arrears heading into Friday night’s matchup at Rogers Place.
The Flames have five games left against Montreal and three against Edmonton. Of course, with the news out of Vancouver, nobody can be sure if the schedule we’re working off of will not change.
"Even now, you know there is going to be some (rearranging)," said Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter. "It’s not just (the Canucks) fitting games in. You know you might get a different opponent at some point too."
Case in point: Edmonton went out East for five games, and had to stay an extra day just to get a third game in. Then they came home for two, will play just one — Saturday’s visit by Vancouver is postponed — and head back East on Sunday for a three-game roadie.
"All we can do is get ready to play, and if they reschedule, be ready for that too," said Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. "That’s the way this season is — you’ve got to roll with it."
The Flames have two games scheduled against Vancouver next week. The Oilers have two the week after.
As it turns out, the teams that don’t fall into COVID-19 problems have to suffer the schedule consequences as well. Who said life was fair?
"If you feel sorry for yourself, you’re going to be behind," said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. "You might as well deal with what you can deal with. That’s how we play, how we control our emotions, how we do our day to day. Focus on the task at hand, and that’s finding ways to win hockey games."
"The schedule is almost irrelevant," added Sutter. "You know you’re going to play every other day and … those few days at the end of early May, where the schedule was over on a Saturday, you know it will probably get extended at some point.
"It’s like going to those tournaments when you were kids. You hoped you’d got to three games on the Saturday."
Line ‘Em Up
Looks like Tippett will deploy Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on separate lines Friday night, an alignment that gave the Flames trouble in their last meeting, a 7-3 Edmonton win in which McDavid (1-2-3) and Draisaitl (0-3-3) dominated.
After a long time out of the lineup Kyle Turris got into two games, but he’s back out again. Caleb Jones is on at LD for William Lagesson, yet another opportunity for Jones to secure a regular spot on the Oiler blue line. He should seize the opportunity one of these times.
Calgary is 1-5 in its last six games and is averaging 1.5 goals per game while allowing 2.83. The worst stat? Probably the .899 saves percentage, which has cast a pall over the free-agent signing of Jacob Markstrom this season.
David Rittich practised in the starter’s net at the morning — Markstrom wasn’t at practice. We’ll give the start to Rittich.
Up front, the Flames’ big boys have to start producing. They’ve been outscored 26-17 in six games (2-4) versus Edmonton this year, Johnny Gaudreau has one even-strength goal, while Sean Monahan has but two assists in four starts. Matthew Tkachuk is scoreless in four games.
Here’s how Calgary will line up:
The talk at the morning availabilities was as much about the Canucks and their situation as it was about the Battle of Alberta.
"I’m trying to think about Calgary right now," began Tippett, whose club has a chance to move 12 points ahead of the Flames, a club with a 1.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs, according to Sports Club Stats.
"We know where these guys are at and we know where we’re at," Nugent-Hopkins said. "We know they’re going to be pushing."
The problem in this matchup for the Flames is down the middle. They don’t have a true first-line centreman — no offence to Elias Lindholm, who does well in the role — while Edmonton has two.
When McDavid and Draisaitl get away, as they did twice this season, the Oilers have had a couple of seven-goal nights versus the Flames.
"We’ve got to be aware when they’re out there, and stay above them all the time. Don’t give them so much room," Lindholm said. "Those games where they run away a little bit, that’s the game where we start getting away from our game plan, start giving them a lot of room and some power plays."
Sutter watched a 3-2 Oilers win over his club after he was hired — but before Sutter joined the Flames in person — then presided over a 4-3 Flames win and 7-3 Oilers win later in March.
"They split McDavid and Draisaitl up in the second game, and that was a handful for us," he admitted. "And they were three-for-four on the power play in that second game also, which pretty well tells the tale of the game."
He’s learning about his players, a roster that went 4-1 in Sutter’s first five games, but has faltered since, with one win in six games.
"In the guts of the game, behind the bench, is when you learn the most about your (team)," he said. "It’s easy to study a team and do the Xs and Os, but you learn more about the individual when you are in the guts of the game."
What kinds of things?
"The guts of the game," he said.