The Pengrowth Saddledome was quiet Monday. Officially, the Calgary Flames were enjoying a "recovery day" in advance of the latest edition of the biggest game of the year - Tuesday against the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks.
No one, except a few of the injured regulars, was around to discuss the team's prospects, and that was okay because, realistically, what could they say? At this stage of the season, it's as much about arithmetic as it is about hockey. Even if Calgary wins its final three games of the season and earns the maximum six points, all the Colorado Avalanche need to do is earn four points in their remaining four games and they will lock up the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference.
The tie-breakers all work in Colorado's favour - more wins, a better record in head-to-head play. So even if team captain Jarome Iginla had been at the arena to talk, or chatterbox Craig Conroy, or veteran defenceman Robyn Regehr, their collective wisdom would boil down to a riff on taking things one game at a time and hoping that the Avalanche stumble badly beginning Tuesday, when they start a mini-road trip in Vancouver.
Colorado can clinch as early as today, with a win and a Calgary loss. Should the Flames emerge victorious over the Sharks and the Avalanche fall in regulation to the Canucks, then the teams will be tied again at 91, leaving Calgary with a glimmer of hope.
"You still gotta believe that something good's got to come out of this, and I truly believe it will," said coach Brent Sutter in a one-on-one interview in his office. "I believe that and I want to make sure the players still believe it, too - because that gives us our best chance. If we have any other thoughts than that, it's going to be tough."
As is always the case with any close race, one or two extra points somewhere along the line can mean the difference between making and missing the playoffs. General manager Darryl Sutter pointed to a stretch in mid-January, when the team lost six games in a row in regulation and collectively posted a 1-8-3 mark, as the turning point in the season. At that juncture, he undertook an ambitious mid-season makeover of the team, turning over a third of the squad and trading away two core players - defenceman Dion Phaneuf and forward Olli Jokinen.
In the 27 games since that dismal January stretch, Calgary has been a respectable 16-10-1. The problem is that for only the second time in league history, seven Western Conference teams will likely exceed 100 points (it also happened in 2007), which means a respectable finish will likely not be good enough.
"The way I look at it, it's been must-win since the break," Darryl Sutter said. "The magic number is always at 95 or 96. Last year, it was 91, but if you look at the way the conference set up this year, you have to have a little bit more. So the bottom line is you've got to win all your games."
In a long and widely varied conversation, Brent Sutter remembered a time in his playing career with the New York Islanders when the New Jersey Devils made a miraculous 11th-hour push to qualify for the 1988 playoffs, edging the New York Rangers for the last playoff berth in the Patrick Division by winning in overtime on the final Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks. Then, in the playoffs, the No. 4-seeded Devils knocked off the division-winning Islanders in six games in the opening round.
So miracles can happen, provided you keep the faith, something Sutter stressed over and over again on Monday.
"We can control what we do here and how we play," he said. "If we don't take care of things ourselves, then it doesn't matter what else happens. Right now, we can't beat ourselves. We have to do our business and, hopefully, the rest falls into place.
"But you've got to believe it can still happen, and I still do."