Can a team ever win too much? Their playoff hopes evaporated long ago, the Calgary Flames are putting the finishing touches on a remarkably successful season – remarkable only because the bar had been set so low at the start of a rebuilding year that the 77 points they have through 80 games, and the 35 wins, represent a decent season.
The problem is, when you're an also-ran, the only happy byproduct is a high choice in the NHL entry draft. After winning for the fourth time in a row Wednesday night – 4-3 in a shootout against divisional rival the Los Angeles Kings – the Flames are inching up the overall standings, with the Winnipeg Jets and even the Vancouver Canucks potentially in their sights.
But there's a value, according to T.J. Galiardi, of finishing well and carrying that over into next season.
"It's going to be a real long summer, everyone knows it," said Galiardi. "But when you set things in motion at the end of the year, it's easier to get them going at the start of the next year."
One of the biggest questions the Flames faced this season was who would replace Mikka Kiprusoff as the team's new No. 1 goaltender? Three Europeans were brought in on auditions and the one that coach Bob Hartley turned to lots during the first third of the season, Reto Berra, was eventually traded to the Colorado Avalanche at the deadline. Karri Ramo had the best credentials, having played in the NHL before for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After a successful career in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, the Flames signed him to a contract last summer and in the second half, he has shown signs that he could possibly evolve into a No. 1 NHL goalie. Ramo is athletic and a little more unorthodox than Kiprusoff, his fellow Finn. But if a team solves the problem in goal, then everything else becomes just a little bit more manageable. Ramo stopped 44 shots against the Kings – Calgary managed only 18 against Jonathan Quick – and he was the primary difference between the two teams.
"If you look at the past weeks, (Ramo) has been our best player and when your goalie is your best player, I think it's an easy thing to figure out," assessed Flames coach Bob Hartley. "He's going to give your team lots of confidence.
"Kari is fun to watch. He's fun to be around. He's so focused. His preparation is flawless. You should see this guy in the video room and in the gym, stretching and working out. Early and before practice, he's on the ice. He stays after practice. His progression has been unbelievable. He's making a name for himself as a No. 1. That should give him big confidence going into the summer."
"What people don't know about (Ramo) is he's one of the hardest working guys I've ever played with," added Galiardi. "Since he's come back from that little knee injury, he's been stellar. He's been unbelievable. He's proven that he can be an upper-echelon goalie in the league."
Last week in New Jersey, Ramo's KHL teammate Jaromir Jagr was victim of a 1-0 shutout pitched by Ramo, which greatly undermined the Devils' playoff chances. Jagr was effusive in his praise of Ramo, although Ramo thought there was a little bit of "spiciness" in his comments – frustration that seeped through because the loss was so devastating to New Jersey's playoff chances. But Ramo was thankful for the kind words, noted Jagr was one of the game's all-time greats, and so, it was all good.
Nor does Ramo believe that much has changed in his play from the start of the season until the end.
"It feels pretty much the same," he said. "Sometimes, bounces don't go your way, sometimes they do. The only thing I can control is what I do in the practice before the games and the preparation. I just keep doing the same things.
"I didn't feel bad at any point in the season. Right now, we've been getting results. Our effort has been getting us points and it's a good thing. Everybody knows, if we just keep working, anything is possible – and anything is possible next year."
According to Hartley, while the Flames' strong finish is heartening, it shouldn't automatically be assumed that they can carry it over into next season, when everyone starts from scratch again.
"It gives us a chance to set some higher expectations for ourselves," said Hartley. "At the same time, there are no guarantees. We'll need a big summer. We're not where we want to be. We have to be very cautious. I'm unbelievably proud of my group, but at the same time, come next September, we're still going to be a team that missed the playoffs. We'll have to find a way to be better and more consistent. Consistency now is becoming probably our next challenge."
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