There is a running joke in the Gulutzan household between Glen, the coach of the Calgary Flames, and his oldest daughter, Emma, a Grade 10 student. It played out again Monday night, according to Gulutzan, after the Flames defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 to extend their winning streak to 10 games, matching a club record set in 1978, when the team was based in Atlanta.
"I said to Emma after the game, 'Well, maybe we can go out for dinner now,'" Gulutzan deadpanned, "because we weren't going out for dinner much in the first month."
There is no better way of assessing the mood shift in Calgary than the fact it is now safe for the Gulutzan family to go out on the town. Instead of glum and sombre, all is now light and frothy after the Flames executed a remarkable turnaround to a season that, early on, appeared to be going nowhere fast. The Flames have a chance to establish a franchise-record winning streak Wednesday night, when the Boston Bruins visit the Saddledome.
The only other time they've managed such a reversal of fortune occurred in the 1985-86 season, when the Flames overcame a record 11-game losing streak to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup final. That year, the coach was the remarkably effervescent Bob Johnson, who, on the night of that record-setting loss, pinned it on the media, saying "too much is being made out of our so-called slump."
Gulutzan, who was hired to replace Bob Hartley in the off-season, shares Johnson's positive outlook. But it was put to the test after a slow start – 2-7-1 after 10 games and 5-10-1 after 16.
Pat Steinberg, the host of the Flames' postgame call-in radio show, generally keeps his finger on the pulse of the fan base. He's detected a couple of dramatic shifts this season. According to Steinberg, in the first month, much of the dialogue focused on the coaching change – was Gulutzan the right choice, after working as a Vancouver Canucks assistant?
Things settled down after an 11-3-1 run that began in mid-November, but the naysayers returned two months later during an ugly four-game losing stretch that included lopsided losses to the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Even then people were saying, 'We're falling out of this thing and we need to revisit the coaching conversation. And will he be back next year?'" Steinberg said. "Then this streak happened, completely out of nowhere, and now they're asking: 'Is Mikael Backlund going to win the Selke? What's the best playoff matchup? Or if we play Edmonton, who matches up against Connor McDavid?' So the tone has changed completely. It went from 'How do we fix this?' to 'Okay, what's the best way to win a playoff series or two?' And even when they won in the playoffs two years ago, I don't remember anyone talking about them as a Stanley Cup contender."
The Flames have only made it past the conference quarterfinal once since 2004, the year they lost the Stanley Cup final to the Tampa Bay Lightning. That was two years ago, under Hartley, in what was a bittersweet year for team captain Mark Giordano. He was considered one of the leading candidates for the Norris Trophy – until a bicep tear sidelined him for the final month of the season and the playoffs.
The Flames ultimately rallied around their captain's injury, made the playoffs and even won a round – upsetting the Canucks – before eventually falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the quarter-final. The Flames' recent surge has lifted them into the top three in the Pacific Division, ahead of their provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.
For Giordano, not getting a chance to play in the 2015 playoffs makes the current surge up the standings all the more heartening.
"Honestly, the older you get, this is what you play for," Giordano said. "You play for games like yesterday's [versus Pittsburgh], where the atmosphere was so good. I can tell you right now, I'd rather be in this spot than have 70 points and not make the playoffs.
"The older guys are really embracing it. We know, you sort of run out of time the older you get. You only have so many more cracks at it. We want to make it into the playoffs this year and then start a trend where we're battling for a playoff spot every year."
Considering this is the NHL's age of parity, it has been a remarkable year for winning streaks. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Calgary became the fourth team to earn a winning streak of 10 or more games this season, joining Columbus (16), Minnesota (12) and Philadelphia (10) – the first time in NHL history. In fact, 2015-16 is the only other season in which three teams put together streaks of 10 victories or more. (Granted, the chance to win games in overtime and/or shootouts is a relatively recent phenomenon and colours the streaks to an extent.)
But the fact is Calgary has been playing with a purpose for a while now, and the win over Pittsburgh in an entertaining, high-octane contest was an important litmus test.
"In grocery stores, coffee shops, people will encourage us and tell us how proud they are of us – which is cool to hear," Giordano said. "For sure, you feel it. In Calgary, fans are so passionate about hockey – both ways. When things aren't going well, they really feel it. And when things are going really well, they're a big part of it. The atmosphere in this city around playoff time, I don't think there are many cities that can compare. The last few games here, we've started to feel that.
"I think everyone's mindset is to solidify our playoff spot and keep this streak going for as long as we can."