For a guy whose team could fail to reach the NHL playoffs for the third year in a row, Brent Sutter was in a remarkably buoyant mood Tuesday.
He went so far as to say he felt “lovely,” then cracked jokes with reporters. This from a head coach who doesn’t have a contract for the 2012-13 season and may not be offered one.
Then again, Sutter may have gotten some of the angst and anger out of his system after a pair of salty meltdowns. The first came last week, when the Flames wasted a two-goal lead and lost in a shootout to the Minnesota Wild. Sutter responded by kicking the daylights out of an unsuspecting trash can, then venting his frustrations to Calgary general manager Jay Feaster.
Sutter was so unsettled, assistant coach Craig Hartsburg did the postgame interviews.
On Monday, after seeing his team give up a soft, early goal in the second period, Sutter called a timeout then unleashed a barrage that would have made comedian Andrew Dice Clay cover his ears. Calgary forward Alex Tanguay dubbed it: “The Red Deer farm speech, that’s for sure.”
It had the desired effect. The Flames went on to dominate the period and defeat the Dallas Stars, 5-4. It kept Calgary in the postseason race and underlined a telling point: Sutter has done everything he can, from juggling lines to confronting his players, to get the most out of them. Sometimes, it’s worked; sometimes, it’s failed miserably.
(His selection of shooters in the shootout against Minnesota left him open to widespread criticism. Blake Comeau over Jarome Iginla? Really?)
But Sutter’s handling has to be credited for keeping his team within two points of a playoff berth heading into Wednesday’s game against the visiting Los Angeles Kings.
The ninth-place Kings (and 10th-place Colorado Avalanche) are one point ahead of Calgary in a close grouping.
With a core group that has played well then gone cold at varying intervals, Sutter hasn’t been afraid to challenge his veterans behind closed doors. He’s benched many and used different people in different places – think of Mike Cammalleri playing centre – while integrating a sizable number of AHL call-ups into an injury-rattled lineup.
Sutter may not hit the 40-win mark for a third successive year, but this looks to be his best coaching effort in Calgary, however it ends.
“He’s done [the in-game rant]a few times, and the times he has have been pretty meaningful,” defenceman Mark Giordano said. “He’s got a tremendous feel for the game, where guys should be on the ice and what they should be doing. It’s probably the most important quality to have as a head coach, and Brent has that.”
Sutter has been cranking out the same message for days now: Forget everything but the task at hand; win the remaining games, then see if that’s good enough. That includes grinding his best players like they’ve never been ground before – and no one more so than goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who will take every start and play every minute until the regular season is done.
“Hey, look at the situation we’re in. You run with your best,” Sutter explained. “We don’t have an option.”
There’s no doubt this group of Flames has seriously tested Sutter’s resolve. At the end of last season, the players spoke of how they were done in by their poor start and vowed not to let it happen again. But two months into the 2011-12 campaign, the Flames were 10-12-1 and the struggle was renewed.
Through it all, Sutter has pushed every button and kicked every can to inspire his players. That hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He knows when we have more to give and wanted to give us a spark,” Tanguay said. “Brent’s been coaching a long time. The timing was right.”
The Flames’ timing is about the here and now, with four of their last five games at the Scotiabank Saddledome and all against Western Conference rivals. The head coach is doing his part to ensure his players do theirs. And if that means another spicy outburst to get their attention, well, so be it.
Brent Sutter was chuckling Tuesday; he’ll be back on his game come Wednesday, and probably not so “lovely.”