Of all the monumental games the Calgary Flames had played since Christmas, Wednesday's was the pinnacle, the height of necessity. Lose to the Anaheim Ducks and a playoff spot would be all but lost. Win and at least there'd be a semblance of hope.
Technically, the Flames remain in the Western Conference playoff picture, but barely now. Their hopes took one square on the jaw and it happened in a wham-bam second period sequence that sealed the 4-2 outcome in Anaheim's favour.
The first blow was the goal that wasn't. The Flames crowded Anaheim goalie Ray Emery and swiped away at the puck then began celebrating as if they had scored. Replays showed the puck was somewhere in Emery's possession as he fell backwards into his net. Ducks' captain Ryan Getzlaf reached in and pulled the puck away then, when asked about his handiwork during a second-period intermission, said he did nothing of the sort. "Wasn't me," he protested.
After a six-minute delay, referee Gord Dwyer announced the puck didn't completely cross the line. Flames' fans quickly let their inner most feelings known.
"I'm telling you it was in. That's all I can say," said Calgary's Matt Stajan, who was in on the action. "It's too bad they got it wrong. We can't blame the season on that. but it was a big momentum change."
"Everybody was scrambling," Getzlaf said afterwards. "They did a great job taking as long as they could to get (the call) right."
Then came the goal that counted.
With 69 seconds remaining in the period, Ducks' defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky's shot deflected off the glove of Calgary's Cory Sarich past goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to give Anaheim's a 3-1 lead.
For the Flames, there was the now-traditional late flurry but it wasn't enough. The hard reality is Calgary has four games left and trails the Chicago Blackhawks for the eighth and final playoff spot by three points. Complicating matters is the fact Chicago has six games left on its schedule. For the Flames to make the playoffs, we're talking miracles of biblical proportions. Think of Lazarus and you get the idea.
In many ways, last night's game played out as expected. It was close, intense to the end. In their previous encounters with Anaheim, the Flames had lost all three by the narrowest measure, twice in overtime, once in a shootout.
On March 20 in Anaheim, the Flames watched in disbelief as the Ducks tied the game then won it overtime on a goal by Corey Perry. And prior to the puck dropping for the final meeting, the Flames knew exactly what they had to do: not fall behind early and find a way to slow Perry, whose goal-scoring antics of late had some in the National Hockey League touting him for Hart Trophy consideration.
Calgary got the 1-0 lead it wanted, its first in five games, when Jarome Iginla snapped in his 37th of the season at 2:58. But then the problems began. Calgary kept taking penalties. Bobby Ryan tied the score on a wraparound and then it was Perry beating Kiprusoff on a tip-in.. Both Anaheim goals came on the power play.
From there to the end, the Flames pushed, but the Ducks pushed back, harder and smarter until Perry scored into an empty net.
At the morning skate, Flames' centre Olli Jokinen had said: "In December, we were two points ahead of Edmonton (and last place in the Conference). We're in the situation now of controlling our own fate to get in the playoffs."
That's no longer the case. Even if they finish out the season with wins over St. Louis, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver, someone else has to stumble, badly. A win would have kept the improbable alive; the loss sent hope on the run.
"It was an important game. It's disappointing," said Calgary's Tim Jackman. "What do you do? You have to keep fighting."