It's not often that a convincing, complete-game rout over their provincial rivals would leave the Calgary Flames so down.
But that was their stark reality last night. Despite a convincing 6-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers, the Flames were eliminated from NHL playoff contention when the only two teams they could catch in the Western Conference race, the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, both won as well.
"It sucks," said left winger Alex Tanguay, in a downcast dressing room afterward. "I feel if we started that run a week or 10 days earlier, we'd be in the playoffs now and the way we've been playing since Christmas, we would have given ourselves a chance of being one of those teams that did like Philly did last year.
"But unfortunately, it's not going to pan out for us. It sucks. It sucks right now."
Any hope of catching the defending Stanley Cup champions from Chicago evaporated when the Blackhawks rallied for a 4-3 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues. The Blues briefly held a 2-0 lead in the game, until a controversial goal by Marian Hossa - that appeared to be kicked in and may never have crossed the goal line - keyed the Blackhawks' rally.
Conspiracy theorists around Calgary have been railing against the NHL war room reviews because of a controversial call that went against the Flames in a home game against the Anaheim Ducks last week ultimately cost them a victory. This latest ruling, and its impact on the race, will only add fuel the fire.
The Flames left the ice following the victory, knowing that the Ducks were crushing their Pacific Division rivals, the San Jose Sharks, who gave back-up goaltender Antero Nittymaki his first start in three months. Among other things, the decision helped the Ducks' Corey Perry become the NHL's first 50-goal scorer this season, as he potted three.
"We needed help and we didn't get any," said coach Brent Sutter. "Watching the San Jose-Anaheim game, that's a tough one to watch. But you know what? From mid-December on, we dug our heels in and we've had a hell of a run in these last 46 games. It's certainly been a learning process. I've learned a lot - about how things need to be - and I'm sure everybody else has too."
Ultimately, Calgary earned points in 35 of 46 games since Dec. 23 (27-11-8), but it was not enough to overcome a 14-18-3 start. The Flames can get to 95 points if they defeat the Vancouver Canucks in Saturday's season finale, which would tie the highest points total in history for a team (Colorado Avalanche, 2007) that failed to qualify for the playoffs.
It also marks the first time since the 1977-78 season that only two Canadian teams will qualify for post-season play. That year, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. This year, it will be Vancouver and Montreal.
"I really thought we were going to get in," said Flames' captain Jarome Iginla, who led the way offensively against the Oilers, scoring three goals to record his 12th career hat trick.
"It's going to be hard watching, for us and for our fans, when the playoffs start Wednesday. I think we did come a long way as a team. We have an opportunity to be 13 or 14 games above .500 and one or two points out.
"We're a good team and whether it's Dallas or somebody else, another good team will be out on our side that could easily have been in. I think we've come a long way since the beginning of the year. We learned a lot. There are some positives, but unfortunately, it doesn't feel like it today."
In matters that they could control, the Flames eventually routed a young-and-injury riddled Edmonton team, which was playing for the second time in two nights. The shots were 22-3 Calgary when Bourque finally broke through against perennial Flames' killer Nikolai Khabibulin, who stopped 20 first-period shots, including a Tanguay penalty shot, to keep it close for a while.
Iginla then scored two in a row, the 40th and 41st of his season, marking the fourth time in his career he has broken the 40-goal barrier. Tanguay and Curtis Glencross added goals for Calgary, while the Oilers' Magnus Paajarvi broke Miikka Kiprusoff's shutout attempt in the third period.
For Kiprusoff, it was his 262nd win in a Calgary uniform, tying him with Mike Vernon for top spot in franchise history.
Iginla was honoured in a brief pre-game ceremony for becoming the 77th player in league history to reach the 1,000-point plateau last week, with long-time team icon Lanny McDonald on hand to make the presentation.
It was also Daymond Langkow's first home game in almost 13 months after recovering from a serious neck injury. The Flames were trying to work Langkow in gradually, but even in just his third game of the season, he was getting more ice time nightly than Matt Stajan.
A LOSE/WIN SITUATION IN OIL COUNTRY:
For Edmonton, the defeat secured 30th place in the overall NHL standings, and in a round-about way, represented good news because it puts them in the driver's seat to win the draft lottery for the second year in a row, with about a 48 per cent chance of holding onto the top pick. That event takes place next Tuesday in New York, with general manager Steve Tambellini on hand to represent the team.
The Oilers played last night without six regulars up front including last year's No. 1 overall Taylor Hall. Joining him on the sidelines were Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule and Colin Fraser. It meant the Oilers had a total of just over 800 career NHL points in their rookie-laden line-up. Iginla went into the game with 1,001 career points of his own.