It was positioned as a make-it-or-break-it road trip for Calgary, but in the end it turned out to be neither. And for the Flames, that was a good thing in the grand scheme of things.
Out of the Scotiabank Saddledome for two weeks, making way for the Brier, the Flames earned nine of a possible 14 points and returned home from Ottawa Sunday night basking in the glow of a loss that felt like a victory. The Flames overcame a four-goal, third-period deficit to force overtime, earning a point in a game that Ottawa finally won in a shootout.
That point kept them in a playoff position – third in the Pacific, one point behind the Vancouver Canucks, two ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings – and at this stage of a rebuilding season, that's a remarkable development.
When team captain Mark Giordano was lost to season-ending bicep surgery, coach Bob Hartley had to redeploy his defence corps – and the result is that three players (Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell and T.J. Brodie) are playing massive minutes. Wideman clocked in above 30 against the Senators, Russell was at 28 minutes 26 seconds and Brodie was at 25:22.
The chance to play at home for an extended period will give Hartley a better opportunity to integrate newcomer David Schlemko into the lineup. Schlemko joined the team during the road trip after being plucked off of waivers, and he has been playing mostly third-pairing minutes since his arrival. Deryk Engelland has moved up the depth chart to play an expanded role, but the most interesting development has been Wideman's elevated play.
Things didn't start off well for the veteran defenceman, who is Calgary's highest-paid player at $5.25-million a season. Hartley was so dissatisfied with Wideman's performance that he made him a healthy scratch in the second game of the season. Since then, the two have warmed up to each other considerably and there was a funny bit on NHL trade-deadline day, when Wideman and Hartley conspired to play a trick on the television sports networks, Wideman pretending to take a phone call at the players bench after practice, as if he were being traded.
He later confessed it was all a gag, harmless good fun, on a day when TV analysts dissect every hint or twitch for meaning or nuance. But it's that ability to keep things light that has the Flames trending in the right direction.
If the Flames' season had gone in a different direction, and if they'd been 10 points out of a playoff spot, it's possible – and even likely – that Wideman might have been dangled as trade bait.
Instead, he's become practically indispensable, someone able to play big minutes despite the occasional defensive gaffe, a fact of life with any high-risk, high-reward player.
Even before the injury to Giordano, it would have been difficult to imagine the Flames having the kind of the year they're having without the impact that Wideman is having individually. He has 41 points, nine off the league lead for defencemen, and is within hailing distance of his career high of 50 set in 2008-09 when he played for the Boston Bruins.
Down the stretch, Hartley will need to decide if this is a sustainable workload for his top three defencemen, or if it negatively affects performance. The Flames received a badly needed day off Monday, to reconnect with their families and friends, and to celebrate Jiri Hudler's selection as the NHL's player of the week.
Hudler won because he'd produced multiple points in four consecutive games, but he was one of many Flames players who had productive road trips. Centre Mikael Backlund also remained hot, stringing together his second five-game scoring streak in an injury-shortened season.
Practice resumes Tuesday, and the Flames' schedule becomes slightly less onerous for the next two-and-a-half weeks, with seven home games broken up only by a quick away date at Colorado against the Avalanche this coming Saturday.
Since the current point system came into effect after the 2004-05 season, no team has ever missed the playoffs with 97 points. So if they can earn 10 wins in their final 16 games, the Flames can practically guarantee themselves a berth in the postseason. After coming this far, now would be the wrong time for a letdown.