The hope was to get the second half off to a rousing start and the Calgary Flames did just that – with an emphatic 6-0 home-ice win over the scorching-hot Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.
It was important victory on a lot of levels – goaltender Jonas Hiller came out of mothballs to record the shutout win in relief of the No. 1 starter, Kari Ramo; teenage forward Sam Bennett wowed them with a four-goal performance and even the slumping Jiri Hudler showed signs of life.
Now the real challenge is about to begin. Starting with Saturday's game against the Oilers in Edmonton, the Flames play their next five on the road, where they are 29th in the league (6-11-2).
In short, this is another sink-or-swim stretch in a season full of them – a year when the Flames started badly, recovered to get back in the race with an 11-game home win streak, and then tailed off again just before mid-season. The net effect is that in a tightly bunched Western Conference playoff race, they are on the outside, peering in.
"The last month, our game has been better," acknowledged Flames' captain Mark Giordano. "If we can continue to play with the energy we've played with, we'll be okay, but we're a little behind now.
"The bottom line is, we're going to have to string some wins together and avoid a losing streak in the second half."
In the past three weeks or so, the Pacific Division isn't looking nearly as weak as before, while teams in the powerful Central – with the exception of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks – have faltered.
It means that the two playoff wild card spots in the conference – thought to be locked up for the Central – may be available, too, if the trend continues. Accordingly, all is not lost for the Flames, as long as they can put the inconsistencies of the first half behind them.
Their special teams – last in the power play, last in penalty killing – have been brutal. Beyond that, almost every difference maker on the team had career years last year. This year, after Johnny Gaudreau, defenceman T.J. Brodie and to some extent, Ramo, they haven't got it together.
Hudler's scoring problems are particularly perplexing because, though few thought he'd manage 31 again, the fact that he has only five is far below what might have been expected from him. Coach Bob Hartley has moved Hudler off the top line, with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and put the wrecking ball, Micheal Ferland, with them – a line that looks as though it has some long-term potential.
Hudler was playing with Bennett which, for one night against the Panthers, looked like a world-beating unit, with Mikael Backlund in the middle. Bennett's scoring outburst gives him 10 goals – five in the past two games. While playing a consistent and physical brand of two-way hockey during his scoring slump, Bennett went well over a month without a goal. When he finally broke through, he did so in an entertaining animated way. Skating back toward the bench to accept his teammates' congratulations, Bennett figuratively pulled a monkey off his back and tossed it away.
The next night came the four-goal explosion – the first time since Jarome Iginla in 2003 that a Flames' skater had a game like that.
No one expects Bennett to do that every night – but if Hudler and Ferland can chip in more consistently on offence, then the chances of making up that small gap in the playoff race becomes far more likely.
"We have to be careful [with Bennett]," Hartley cautioned. "We have him with lots of ice time, but he's 19 years old. He puts enormous pressure on himself [so] he doesn't need me or anybody else to add on.
"We're trying to teach him to play the right way, in three zones. I always tell him: 'We want you to score goals and you want to score goals, but as long as you play well, you're allowing the team a chance to win games.'"
As for Hudler, Hartley acknowledged: "Jiri had a tough start, then got sick, then things didn't [go his way]. Maybe Jiri's start was in the image of our hockey club. At the same time, he's a proud individual and a very good pro. It's just a matter of time.
"The message to everyone in our organization is – do the right things and play hard and play well. Scoring goals, it's not easy in this league these days."