A SCHEDULING NOTE: Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but for the first time since the 1927-28 season, the NHL regular season will conclude on a Saturday, with all 30 teams in action on the final night. The shift, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, was made to put all playoff teams on an equal competitive footing going into the postseason, which couldn’t be done if a handful of games spilled into Sunday. Playoffs themselves begin same as always – the first Wednesday after the regular season ends. According to figures supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau, the last season which did not end on a Sunday was 2005-06, which ended on a Tuesday.
FLAMING OUT: Of the six teams competing for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Flames now face the longest odds. They’re at 83 points, with only seven games remaining, and if they miss, it’ll be because of games such as Thursday night’s, when they were in complete command against the Minnesota Wild, had a 2-0 lead and a chance to turn it into a three-goal on an extended five-on-three advantage, but failed to capitalize. The Wild comeback came out of nowhere – on their first power play of the night when Heatley ended an eight-game point-less streak by scoring a goal. Calgary ultimately lost in a shootout, marking their third consecutive shootout loss. They are 3-9 in the shootout overall and even if coach Brent Sutter took some heat for gambling with a different look against the Wild’s goaltender Josh Harding, it is hard to blame him, based on how little success the regular shootout guys have had. In their past four games, the Flames have gained just three of eight points – or to put it another way, left five points on the table in games against Colorado and three of the conference also-rans Columbus, Edmonton and Minnesota. And while their injured players are getting back – Lee Stempniak, Blake Comeau, Blair Jones and Chris Butler – have all returned in recent days, the most important absentee is Mike Cammalleri, who could be back as early as Saturday's date with the Stars.
The exodus from sick bay also required the Flames to send rookie Sven Baertschi back to his WHL team in Portland hurt their overall game. Baertschi was providing scoring and enthusiasm, which is missing now.
Havlat’s strong play notwithstanding, players returning from injury usually need a week or more to find their stride. Calgary doesn’t have a week or more. It’s best hope now is to start picking off opponents, beginning with a home-and-home against Dallas that starts Saturday. With a regulation sweep, that’s at least one team they can leapfrog without help from anywhere else.
SINGING THE BLUES: On some level, it probably wasn’t a great surprise that St. Louis and Los Angeles played 65 minutes of scoreless hockey Thursday night before the Kings won the game in a shootout. The Blues and Kings are 1-2 in overall team defence, and depending upon how the Pacific sorts itself out (currently, four teams are separated by two points), there is a chance they could meet again in the first round. Playoff pool pickers, beware. It could be a series without goals, although the L.A. offence has perked up since the Jeff Carter acquisition. It isn’t that Carter is lighting it up exactly, but his acquisition coincided with vast improvements in both Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown’s play (and scoring totals). Right now, they are the Kings’ offensive leaders; and L.A. has gone from the NHL’s least productive scoring team to relatively respectable in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, St. Louis now has 101 points, which is still good for the overall NHL lead, though coach Ken Hitchcock sees room for improvement after the team failed to pick up a victory in southern California.
“You can’t find your game in March,” said Hitchcock, a lesson for all playoff-bound teams. “If your game is not in order in March, there’s no chance it’ll be there for a playoff series, no chance at all. You’re going to have cracks in your game and those cracks are always going to come out in a seven-game series. If you can’t defend, there’s going to come a time when it’s pretty emotional and you’re going to fall apart. Or if you can’t kill penalties, all of a sudden, it isn’t going to change because it happens to be playoffs.
“I think the players have really bought into that. We are how we play now and the way we play now, that’s not going to change in April. And if we get beat playing this way in April, then we get beat. But we’re not going to go and beat ourselves. That’s why, when we practice, it’s all-out, it’s to get our tempo as high as we can. You practice every game-like situation you can, so we’re not surprised or worked out about something that we haven’t seen before.”