Just about everyone filing into the Scotiabank Saddledome on Wednesday night was wearing red at the start of the evening – and seeing red by the end.
Playing in front of the 19,289 fans that constitute their ubiquitous Sea of Red, the Calgary Flames lost another close one, 3-1, to the Anaheim Ducks and thus became the first team eliminated from the 2017 NHL playoffs.
On a night when starting goaltender Brian Elliott didn't last six minutes – he was given the hook by coach Glen Gulutzan after surrendering a weak goal to Patrick Eaves – the Ducks scored two early goals in a span of 68 seconds and made them stand up for the victory and a 4-0 series sweep in the best-of-seven Pacific Division semi-final.
The Ducks will meet the winner of the series between the Edmonton Oilers and the San Jose Sharks in the next round.
Ryan Getzlaf clinched the victory for Anaheim with an empty-net goal with 6.7 seconds remaining.
Six days after their postseason started, the Flames were done – eliminated by the combination of iffy goaltending and an inability to compete with the Ducks at even strength.
"There are no words," said Flames' forward Kris Versteeg. "It wasn't a four-game series. I know it goes down like that, but I've been swept before in the past and we deserved it. Not this one. This was tough for everyone, but there are good young pieces here. Hopefully, it's a learning experience for all these guys going forward.
"There are a lot of positives here. Personally, I fell in love with the game again, so it's nice."
Special teams are supposed to matter in the playoffs, and Calgary's power play was exceptional, usually a promising sign.
Entering the game, the Flames were humming along at a 38.5-per-cent success rate with the man advantage and it clicked again versus the Ducks. Sean Monahan contributed a second-period goal, his fourth of the playoffs, with Ryan Kesler in the penalty box for hooking.
But their six goals with the man advantage meant the Flames only managed to score three at even strength in four games, not enough to defeat the more experienced Ducks.
The Flames players spoke Tuesday about playing the game with greater desperation, but nothing about the way they started Wednesday smacked of desperation.
It was a listless beginning, more reminiscent of a 55th game of an endless season than an elimination game, with their season on the line.
They also talked about getting a better goaltending performance. But when Eaves's shot from the left faceoff circle trickled in under Elliott's pad, his night was over. Chad Johnson came on in relief and surrendered a second goal – to Anaheim's Nate Thompson – only 68 seconds into his appearance and that was pretty much it.
"As a goalie, you take pride on giving yourself and your team a chance to win every night," said Elliott. "That one, right off the bat, I still can't explain how it goes under my pad there. I feel bad. I mean, I didn't give our guys a chance right off the bat."
Elliott acknowledged that the quick hook was "definitely a short leash. I'm not saying I deserve a longer one after that. It's tough when you can't go out and redeem yourself. The guys did a great job trying to come back. They put it all out there. I'm definitely proud of them for how they finished that one."
Team captain Mark Giordano came to Elliott's defence, saying: "The reason we're here, to be honest, is because of the Moose [Elliott]. It was a great season by him. It was tough to see that [Eaves goal] go in for sure, but we battled to get that one back for him. We just came up a little short again. We had a lot of looks and they found ways of not letting us get that tying goal."
In the end, the Flames fell to a Ducks team that was on a roll heading into the playoffs (points in 14 consecutive games) and steamrolled their younger, more inexperienced opponents.
Giordano gave the Ducks credit "for finding ways to win every game. You've got to tip your hat to the other team sometimes. But we have nothing to be ashamed of. We battled right to the bitter end. As a group, I thought we left everything out there – and just came up short."
Monahan, the best of the Flames' forwards, was trying to think big-picture thoughts, noting that while the loss and the sweep hurt, "I really like our team. I think we have a great team. Moving forward, it's a huge step, but obviously, right now and throughout the summer, getting swept four is going to sting.
"But coming back next year, this is an exciting team to be on."
For Flames general manager Brad Treliving, the most challenging task will be sorting out next year's goaltending picture. Will Elliott's playoff blip override a strong regular season? Or will the Flames move on again, and comb the off-season goaltending market for yet another fresh face.
Elliott was acquired last June from the St. Louis Blues and came equipped with a modest $2.5-million annual salary on an expiring contract. The Flames had the option of exploring an extension earlier, but elected to wait and see how Elliott fit the mix of their team. His season didn't start well, featured a pretty sensational stretch in the second half and then finished on a down note, Elliott having just a so-so series against the Ducks.
The presence of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – who are expected to act as a goaltending broker for a number of teams – further complicates a summer where the annual game of goalie musical chairs was anticipated to break out. Where Elliott finds a seat – or if he just lands back in Calgary – is their most vexing decision of the off-season.
Johnson signed as a free agent last summer with his hometown team and had a four-week stretch to remember – from mid-November until mid-December – before falling into a more traditional back-up role. Rookie Jon Gillies has long been projected as their future starter, though he has managed to get into just one NHL game – in the next-to-last-game of the regular season – since being drafted 75th overall in 2012.
Gillies is 23, or roughly the same age as John Gibson, Matt Murray and Connor Hellybuyck, other young goalies getting a chance for prime-time NHL duty. Ideally, the Flames want a young nucleus to evolve together and at some point, that will require them to feed a young goalie into the lineup. Last year's 54th overall pick, Tyler Parsons of the London Knights, has already been signed to an entry-level contract, but his NHL time line remains several years down the road.
On the plus side, the Flames will get some salary-cap relief because Dennis Wideman's contract, worth $5.25-million annually and inherited from a previous regime, finally expires. In addition, defenceman Ladislav Smid, who has been on long-term injury reserve and hasn't played for two years, is also off the books once this season ends, wiping out a further $3.5-million obligation.
Defencemen Michael Stone and Derek Engelland are also unrestricted free agents this summer, as is forward Kris Versteeg and there will be interest in bringing them back, depending upon their respective asking prices.
A quartet of restricted free agents – Sam Bennett, Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson – will also need new contracts. Mikael Backlund, who for much of the season, was their most valuable contributor, has one year left on a $3.575-million contract, at which point he will become an unrestricted free agent. Presumably, Treliving will make every attempt to get Backlund signed to an extension when he becomes eligible to do so after July 1.
But that's all off-season business, to be conducted in the cold light of day. Wednesday evening, with their season on the line, they fell flat. Presumably, sifting through the ashes of what went wrong against the Ducks consumed them far into the night.