Margins getting thinner for Flames as NHL trade deadline looms

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Somehow, the Calgary Flames managed to win five straight games and still lose ground in the playoff race.

On the morning of Feb. 19, right before the Flames kicked off their winning streak, they were five points back of the St. Louis Blues, who were sitting in the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot.

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On Monday night after they saw their streak snapped by a 4-2 loss to the Seattle Kraken, they went to bed looking at a seven-point gap to the Nashville Predators, who have taken over the final playoff spot after going eight games without a loss.

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The margins, as they say, are paper thin.

“I feel like it’s been that way for a long time because of the start we had,” said Flames head coach Ryan Huska, referring to the six-game losing streak early in the season that put them way behind the eight-ball. “At the end of the day, we put ourselves in this position where all our games are important games and they have been for a long time.”

The Flames have done an admirable job clawing their way back into playoff contention over the past four months. Once they figured out their new defensive system, they became a lot more difficult to play against and started winning a lot more games.

In the 51 contests since that six-game losing streak, they’ve gone 28-19-4.

This is neither here nor there, but their .588 points-percentage over that stretch would have them in a playoff position currently.

But the Flames dug themselves a hole with those six early losses. And it’s created a situation where there’s absolutely no room for error. A loss like the one they suffered to the Kraken on Monday night hurts that much more when you’re trying to make up ground on a red-hot team like the Predators.

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Anecdotally speaking, you could feel the sense of disappointment in the Flames’ locker-room post-game. They know where they’re at in the standings and they know how much every loss hurts their chances.

“It puts more pressure on us right now,” Flames winger Andrew Mangiapane said. “We have 20 games left in the season. Each game is important to us, we’re trying to claw back here and need every two points.”

This all matters to the Flames’ playoff hopes, but it’s significant to the bigger, long-term picture, too.

Management already has traded away Nikita Zadorov, Elias Lindholm and Chris Tanev this season. Those guys were all set to become unrestricted free agents in the summer and their situations are all unique. 

It’s entirely possible that they would have been traded away even if the Flames were in a playoff position, but the fact that the team was on the outside looking in only made the decision to move on from them that much more obvious.

That applies to Noah Hanifin, too, who will surely be traded in the next couple of days.

“It’s how the league works. If you’re on an expiring deal and you’re out of the playoffs, it’s most likely you’re going to be traded,” Flames blueliner Rasmus Andersson said last week.

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And it didn’t matter that the Flames arguably were playing the best hockey of their season when Tanev was dealt. Their position in the standings still was precarious and the chances of them making the playoffs were low.

When you’re winning five games in a row and the gap between yourself and the team you’re chasing is growing, the odds just aren’t in your favour.

The guys in the locker room will keep fighting. There’s no quit in them and that’s to be admired and respected. They’ve overcome a lot already and have stayed in the fight.

But if you’re Flames GM Craig Conroy, you can’t afford to gamble on keeping soon-to-be free agents around when the margins are this thin.

POSPISIL SET FOR HEARING

Martin Pospisil will be having a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

The Flames winger was issued a five-minute major and a game misconduct for running Kraken defenceman Vince Dunn head-first into the boards late in their game on Monday night.

The incident infuriated the Kraken, with head coach Dave Hakstol calling it “garbage.”

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Dunn left the ice immediately and did not return, and Pospisil now has a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.

The incident marked the second time in a month that the rookie has been ejected from a game after he was issued a game misconduct for cross-checking Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

The Flames have three games this week, starting with Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, followed by mid-afternoon games against the Florida Panthers on Saturday and the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday.

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