Last Wednesday, after his Calgary Flames lost to the Anaheim Ducks, head coach Brent Sutter was pragmatic in his analysis. "There's still life there," he told reporters. "What else do you want me to say?"
The next game in St. Louis, the Flames scored a one-goal decision over the Blues and Sutter talked about "playing things out" to see where three closing wins could take them.
With little left to cling to but hope, the Flames maintained their improbable playoff bid in the NHL Western Conference with a 2-1 victory Sunday in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. The win gave Calgary 91 points, just one back of the eighth-place Chicago Blackhawks, who lost 2-0 Sunday to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Flames have two home games left, against the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, to close out the regular season. Their problem is Chicago has four games remaining (at the Montreal Canadiens, against St. Louis followed by a home-and-home battle against the Detroit Red Wings). The Anaheim Ducks lost 4-3 Sunday to the Dallas Stars but remain in seventh place with 93 points and three games left (against the San Jose Sharks and home and home with the Los Angeles Kings).
For the Flames, living on the edge has become a well-worn practice. In last Friday's win in St. Louis, Calgary overcame a 2-0 deficit led by captain Jarome Iginla, who picked up two goals and an assist to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career.
Realizing their season has been marred by sluggish starts, the Flames were eager to hit the Pepsi Center ice gunning for the Avalanche. As Iginla said before the opening face-off: "Lately, we haven't had the starts we wanted. That's what we talked about (Sunday). We want to give ourselves every opportunity we have."
The Flames buzzed Colorado goalie Peter Budaj and, late in the opening period, watched Rene Bourque skate in on a clean breakaway. Bourque tried to snap the puck between Budaj's pads but was turned away.
The give-and-take action carried on through the second period with Colorado having all the best scoring opportunities, from Jay McClement, Kevin Porter and Ryan O'Byrne to name three. Then the Flames caught a break. Alex Tanguay swiped a loose puck from behind the Colorado net to teammate Olli Jokinen, who shot it past Budaj at 10:23.
The goal was Jokinen's 17th of the season.
The Flames made it 2-0 at 8:13 of the third period when Tanguay took an Iginla feed and wristed a high shot by Budaj. The goal gave Tanguay 21 thus far; the assist gave Iginla 22 points in his last 16 games.
The star of the evening was Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who recorded his 70th start this season making it the sixth year in a row he has appeared in 70 or more games. The Avalanche fired 18 shots at Kiprusoff in the second period alone then, with exactly five minutes to go in regulation time, Milan Hejduk scored to pull Colorado to within a goal.
The Avalanche lifted Buday for the extra attacker but to no avail.
"We're hanging on," Tanguay told Sportsnet afterwards. "We know it's a slim chance but you never know. We've fought so hard since Christmas we don't want to give it away now."
Flames' centre Daymond Langkow played Sunday, his second game in a row, after missing the bulk of the season with a neck injury. Colorado was without centre Paul Statsny, who is done for the season with a stress fracture in his leg. The Avalanche have been plagued by injuries all season.