Scoreboard watching is a mostly solitary pursuit, and everybody manages it in his own way. In Calgary, where it has been a fixture of the Flames' sprint to the regular-season finish for three weeks, defenceman Mark Giordano likes to tune into TV at the end of the night and watch the highlight shows. Left winger Alex Tanguay is content to wait until the morning to digest the latest NHL standings.
On Tuesday morning, Tanguay saw mostly bad news. Calgary's rivals for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference had moved ahead the night before. The Chicago Blackhawks went on the road and defeated the Detroit Red Wings in overtime. Cha-ching. Two more points in the bank for the Blackhawks. The Anaheim Ducks gave up two early goals to the Colorado Avalanche, raising hopes in Calgary for an upset, but the ageless, timeless former Winnipeg Jets wonder Teemu Selanne merely rattled off five points (the first time in NHL history a 40-year-old has managed the feat) and the Ducks rallied for a 5-4 victory, and two more points for them.
Heading into the NHL schedule Tuesday, Anaheim and Chicago held down seventh and eighth place, respectively, in the West, while Calgary was hunkered down in ninth, with just five games to go. The Ducks come to town for a Wednesday date and a loss by the Flames will all but eliminate them.
"You try not to watch other teams and what's going on around us, but at this time of year, it's hard not to," Giordano acknowledged on Tuesday, following practice at the Westside Rec Centre. "But our mindset is, we're confident and we think we can win our remaining games - and that's what we have to do to get in."
Even a victory over the Ducks might just postpone the inevitable for a few more days, but Tanguay has done the calculations and said that 97 points traditionally is enough to make the playoffs - and the Flames can get to 97 if they run the table.
"It's not a matter of looking at the other teams," Tanguay explained. "The other teams are going to win their share of games. Anaheim, Chicago, Dallas [Stars] they're all going to win some games. None of those teams is going to go 0-7 or 0-8. The only way we can control our destiny is to win our games - and it starts Wednesday night."
Since the lockout in 2004-05, with so many bonus points awarded for shootout and overtime losses, our traditional view of the standings has been skewed, but Tanguay's stats are correct. The 2007 Avalanche missed the playoffs with 95 points, the highest point total for a team that failed to qualify for postseason play. (Quirky statistical aside: Colorado has finished with 95 points exactly in four of the past five seasons, which has earned them a sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth-place finish in that span). It can be a moving target, and difficult to pin down.
Four times this season, the Flames were down by three or more goals in a game and came back to earn points, something they've only ever done once before - in 1989, when they had a stacked team that won the President's Trophy and the Stanley Cup.
"It seems we play our best when we're down," team captain Jarome Iginla said. "Maybe that's a little bit of tightness, but it's our own doing. I mean, it's not any external pressure from the coaching staff."
No, instead the coaching staff is instructing them to relax and enjoy the moment, theorizing that playoff races were the best part of life as a professional athlete and, thus, the challenge should be embraced, even if they're not getting the necessary help from their playoff rivals - yet.
"You don't control that, so you don't dwell on it or worry about it," said coach Brent Sutter, after the NHL results Monday were completely at odds with what the Flames wanted to see unfold. "There's nothing you can do about it; it's totally out of your hands. Obviously, we know we need to get help at some point along the way, but we still need to take care of our own business and focus in on what we have to do."