There is a long-standing view in the NHL that while you can't necessarily make the playoffs in the first month of the season, you can surely miss them with a poor start.
Last year's Cinderella team, the Calgary Flames, is testing that premise now, as is the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the second round, the Anaheim Ducks.
They say misery loves company? Well, in the Pacific Division, arguably the weakest in the NHL, it truly does. Misery abounds – and if you run the Flames or support them, it's really the only straw left to clutch after a 2-7-1 start, in which they have yet to win a game in regulation.
One of the more controversial decisions coming out of the most recent NHL lockout was realignment – how 16 teams landed in the East and only 14 in the West, though eight qualify for the playoffs in each conference, with the top three teams in each division automatically qualifying, plus two wild-card teams.
What's emerged is that, in each of the two conferences, one division is demonstrably better than the other – and one could argue that over in the West, six of the top eight teams play in the Central, which means one quality squad isn't going to make the playoffs.
It also gives hope to all the lightweight contenders in the Pacific, where three teams have to make it, no matter what. So let's look at the playoff picture as of Thursday, with the Flames coming off a road trip in which they earned one of a possible six points and the Montreal Canadiens in town Friday night to complete a three-game swing through Western Canada.
Currently, at the top of the Pacific: The Los Angeles Kings, the 2013 Stanley Cup champions, recharged after missing the playoffs last year, winners of six in a row. L.A. is likely going to qualify again. Second is Vancouver, where the Canucks have won only four of nine, but have earned three bonus points for losing games in overtime. They are one of the success stories.
Then there are the Arizona Coyotes, followed by the San Jose Sharks, two lightly regarded teams off to modestly okay starts. Anyone think Arizona can sustain its 5-4-1 pace? Or believe that the real Sharks are the team that's gone 1-4 in its past five, rather than the one that went 4-0 to start the season?
And so when the Flames do the math, they don't need to look at their rank in the conference (13th) or in the league (27th). The only number that matters is the points they have to make up to catch the third-place team in the division and as of Thursday morning, that's six points. It's doable.
Of course, it's only doable if you actually start winning games on a consistent basis.
"It's not a perfect start," Oilers' forward Taylor Hall said. "But I feel like we're finding our way. As a team, we're very prepared. We know what to expect every game coming in. It's up to the players to perform – and we're getting better at that."
Injuries, including the loss of top-pairing defenceman Justin Schultz for two to four weeks, have hurt them in the early going, but the Oilers will be better once Jordan Eberle returns from injured reserve and coach Todd McLellan's system becomes more intuitive.
"Some players are already doing things instinctively and then the other part of the class room is still trying to catch up," McLellan said. "It's ever-evolving."
As for the Flames, they got valuable and underrated defenceman T.J. Brodie back in the lineup for their 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators and he looked good, playing alongside his usual partner, Mark Giordano.
Montreal plays Edmonton and Calgary on back-to-back nights and then the Oilers and Flames meet in the second instalment of the Battle of Alberta on Saturday night.
No one is quite sure why the start in Calgary has been so bad, only that it can't go on like this too much longer, no matter how mediocre the Pacific may be. That development is buying the Flames time, but eventually they need to start helping themselves, too. Otherwise, they'll be playing for next year by the time U.S. Thanksgiving rolls around.