At the midpoint of their season, the Calgary Flames represent an interesting test of the glass half-full/half-empty dynamic.
Glass half-full: They have 45 points after 41 games – 11 more than they did a year ago – and are within hailing distance of a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference. Unlike last season, when they surrendered 36 more goals than they had scored at midseason, this year they're a plus-nine. The Flames have scored a league-high seven times with the goaltender on the bench for an extra attacker and have eight wins when trailing after two periods – a statistical anomaly in an era when teams that have the lead generally find a way of keeping it.
Glass half-empty: Even with the strides they've made – improved goaltending, thanks to Jonas Hiller; four of the most productive defencemen in the game, led by Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie; and two forwards in the top 40 in scoring, including rookie-of-the-year candidate Johnny Gaudreau – they are still outside the playoff mix.
As hard as they work, and despite all the trouble they give the opposition, there are still too many nights when the Flames aren't good enough. They play from behind too much – outscored by their opponents 34-23 in the first period – and even though they've had their share of adrenaline-fuelled comebacks – a 50-27 edge in third-period scoring – they are still very much a work-in-progress.
Even if the Flames duplicate their first-half strides and mine another 45 points out of their final 41 games, that likely wouldn't be enough to make the playoffs. In the eight times an 82-game season has been played since the 2004-05 lockout ended, it has required a minimum of 91 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Three times it has required 95 points, and once – in the 2010-11 season – the eighth-place finishers, the Chicago Blackhawks, made the playoffs with 97 points. Twice in that span, teams with 95 points – Colorado (2006-07) and Dallas (2010-11) – failed to make the playoffs. A 96-point season reasonably guarantees a team a playoff spot in the West, but that would require Calgary to earn 51 points in the second half, a daunting task for a rebuilding team.
Curiously, the Flames played their longest stretch of winning hockey during a time when they were deepest into their injury woes. Since getting close to healthy, they've actually tailed off, going 4-9-1 after starting the season 17-8-2.
"Looking back now, we'd probably want to take back a couple of those games on that streak we had, but that's part of the game," said Brodie. "We've just got to find a way to make up for it down the stretch.
"As a team, we've gone out every game and battled. We have the mentality that we wanted to have coming into the season – and that is never to give up and always be a hard team to play against."
Mostly what's changed in Calgary is that the staleness that permeated the organization when it kept trying to win with an aging core has been replaced by the enthusiasm of youth. Moreover, they have a coach, Bob Hartley, willing to go with the program. Not every experienced NHL coach is prepared to work with so many young players and constantly trot them back out there, even if they've made mistakes.
The pressure to win is great, and Calgary feels it too – but it rarely comes at the expense of doing the safe, expedient thing. The Flames play an aggressive attacking style, with the defencemen constantly joining the rush to create odd-man chances. The result: They've had 99 scoring points from their top four defencemen, more than any other team in the league. Nashville is next at 80.
"It's always fun when you're winning, and it's always easier to come in when you're winning," said Brodie. "You could even sense it during that skid we had there. You start to almost overthink things and start to wonder when the next win's going to come. I think that's the hardest thing to overcome when you're on a streak like that – to go back and play the carefree game you were playing before, when things were going good."
Losing can weigh on a team; as Brodie suggested, it is human nature to press when things are going badly. Sometimes, in trying to do more, they collectively end up doing less. Unlike their counterparts in Edmonton, where another losing season is taking its toll on morale, the Flames' dressing room is still a lively place.
But the season is teetering now, and January's results need to be much better than December's if the Flames want to keep the second half interesting.