The art of coaching is all about pressing the right motivational buttons at the right time - which is presumably why Calgary Flames' coach Brent Sutter went all Mike Keenan on his charges in the aftermath of a 4-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday night. Picture this: Sutter has been suffering from a bad cold, his voice was hoarse and he could barely croak out the words. But some 30 or 40 minutes after the game, long past the usual time for his press conference, he was there at the podium, intent on sending a public message to his troops - that with 11 games to go in the season, with a veteran team that should know better, he didn't detect the urgency required to compete with the Coyotes Tuesday night. Phoenix is one of those Western Conference opponents that persists in hanging around the playoff race, even if it doesn't appear to have the horses to do it. Nashville is like that too - far greater than the sum of its individual parts. And for a time, for more than two months actually, Calgary was that team too. The Flames' perennial weakness is down the middle: There is no Ryan Getzlaf, no Joe Thornton, no Henrik Sedin, no Ryan Kesler, no one that constitutes a game breaker at centre.
Brendan Morrison and then David Moss had been doing admirable work filling in on the top line, but both are out for extended periods with injuries, and so - at this most critical time of year - the Flames are back to experimenting with line combinations to see what works and what doesn't. On balance, the Flames were okay against Phoenix. It wasn't as if the Coyotes did anything remarkable - and were honest enough to acknowledge that the back-breaking goals (by Keith Yandle and Michal Rozsival were the sort of pinball redirections that you cannot predict.
But Sutter saw it differently and talked about regaining focus, playing harder, and staying within the system, which is his way of eliminating the injury excuse from the equation. Everybody gets injuries. Some teams handle the adversity than others (see Pittsburgh Penguins for details).
Ever since Christmas, the recipe for success in Calgary involved the team's new "accentuate the positive" approach - and the strategy has paid big dividends. But even the most ultra-positive coaches need to lay down the law sometime. Sutter read the tea leaves last night, decided this was one of those times, and in that raspy voice delivered the message loud and clear. With 10 games remaining, starting with Thursday against a badly slumping Colorado Avalanche team playing for the second time in 24 hours, they needed to get back to work and find a way of earning a minimum of 15 points in that stretch. We'll see soon enough if the message is heeded. After all, it can't just be on Ales Kotalik to lead the charge to the playoffs. Can it?