The disappointment in Jarome Iginla’s voice was palpable. This was Friday night, moments after the Calgary Flames lost a 4-1 decision to the Colorado Avalanche, which all but eliminated them from playoff contention in the NHL’s Western Conference. Technically, the Flames are still alive, pending Saturday’s date with the Vancouver Canucks, where a defeat will officially put them out of their misery. But who’s kidding who? The Flames needed to get hot down the stretch to have any chance of making it in the ultra-tight Western Conference. Instead, they limped in with a 1-4-3 record in their past eight games, are stuck at 85 points, and effectively are – to paraphrase the great Tiger Williams – done like dinner.
“This is really tough,” said Iginla. “Nobody was giving up. We were trying to win our games and look for some breaks, but we didn’t do that. This obviously doesn’t give us much chance at all. I don’t know, we might even be out.
“It’s tough, tough on all of us – and it’s not just this game. It’s been a tough last stretch, where we haven’t risen to the occasion, myself firstly. Not being able to produce down the stretch when we’ve been in all these one- and two-goal games … “ Iginla paused for a breath.
“We just didn’t produce.”
Once again, it was an uninspired start that did the Flames in, as they surrendered two goals in the opening period, the fourth game in a row in which they’d given up a goal within the first six minutes of play.
“Probably the last eight games was the worst I’ve seen our team play defensively this season,” said coach Brent Sutter, “and that’s why our offence has struggled … It’s all about knowing what it takes to win and lose a game.”
Colorado’s Mark Olver was credited with an early goal that actually went in off Calgary defenceman Jay Bouwmeester’s stick, as he tried to flick the puck out of harm’s way. Moments later, Colorado’s fun-to-watch rookie of the year candidate Gabriel Landeskog walked around Flames’ defenceman Mark Giordano, forcing Giordano to stick his leg out to trip him as he went by. On the delayed penalty, defenceman Erik Johnson scooped up the loose puck, circled all the way around the net and back to the point, where his long shot was deflected by David Jones past goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
Veteran Milan Hejduk also scored for the Avalanche, on a set-up from Landeskog, who was plus-three on the night and is plus-23 on a team where the next highest plus-player in last night’s line-up, Ryan O’Reilly, is a plus-two.
With the victory, Colorado moved to 88 points and joined the logjam of playoff contenders in the Western Conference. Peter Mueller completed the scoring into an empty net after Iginla broke goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s shutout attempt on a six-on-four situation with 39 seconds to go in regulation.
“What we did is, we won a game tonight and we keep our hopes alive,” said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco. “Now, we have five days off until our next game, so we have to wait and see what happens. Some teams will be playing their games-in-hand against us, so now it’s just a matter of waiting for our next game to see where we’re at.”
Four teams from the Pacific Division – the Dallas Stars, the Phoenix Coyotes, the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks – were all within a point of each another going into Friday’s games, with Los Angeles in action against the Edmonton Oilers and the Dallas Stars playing in Vancouver.
Calgary, with the loss, remains at 85 with three games to go and needs three wins, plus a series of mathematical miracles, to make it. The Flames, who’ve produced 90 or more points in seven consecutive seasons, (and averaged 96 points per year in that span) look as if they’ll fall short of 90 this season, a definitive step backwards for a team that insisted all along that it was a playoff contender.
Sutter acknowledged after Wednesday’s loss to the Kings that the Flames would likely need to run the table in order to make the playoffs. Sutter juggled all his lines in an effort to get something – anything – started, but it didn’t much help. I Predictably, dissatisfaction in Calgary was running high among the fan base.
Even that new Air Canada Centre chant – ‘let’s go Blue Jays’ – could be heard from a few leather-lunged discontents.
Somebody tossed a sweater onto the ice in disgust following the loss to the Kings, and the booing started even earlier against the Avalanche, a team that is everything the Flames want to be – young, fast, improving, exciting. Landeskog looks exceptional, even at 19, and some of their other prospects, including defenceman Tyson Barrie seem to have a significant upside as well.
“The foundation for (Landeskog) is his work ethic,” said Sacco. “If you watch Gabriel play, he plays like a man out there. He’s 19 years old, but he’s physically strong. He goes into the hard areas of the ice. He’s not afraid to get involved – and he has skill to go along with the physical aspect of the game, so he’s been a very consistent player most of the season.”
Some teenagers his age fade in their rookie years. Landeskog just appears to be getting stronger.
“He’s played a lot of minutes for us,” said Sacco. “He’s played in a lot of situations for us and he’s continued to stay strong down the stretch.”
Calgary, meanwhile, will likely be starting the post-mortems early next week, when the 2012 playoff guarantee issued by general manager Jay Feaster to TSN at the start of the season will undoubtedly be discussed again.
Calgary’s undoing was its too-heavy reliance on its limited high-end talent. When Iginla was on his early March surge (eight goals in eight games from Mar. 1 to 15), the Flames played themselves legitimately back in the race. When Iginla cooled off (one goal in the final eight games of the month, late vs. Colorado), Calgary fell right out of contention.
Iginla’s future will continue to be hotly debated in Calgary as he completes the fourth year of a five-year, $35 million contract set to expire at the end of the 2012-13 season, at which point he could become an unrestricted free agent.
“In the second and third, we had an unbelievable number of chances,” said Iginla. “We’ve run into too many games like that this year, and it’s cost us, where we’ve gotten behind and at the end of the game, we’re tipping our hat to the other goalie. Too many of those. They’ve piled up on us. This one? The start was the biggest thing, but in the second or third battling back, we threw everything we had at him, ones that you think gotta go in – and just didn’t.”