Why the Flames’ once-promising season went off the rails

Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored his 100th and 101st career goals as the Coyotes beat the Flames 5-2.

It was four months ago Glen Gulutzan identified the problem that eventually railroaded the Calgary Flames season.

"It’s basically the fear of failure," said the team’s second-year coach of his club’s penchant for pulling up lame.

"When adversity hits you have to be at your best, you have to be at your strongest."

They weren’t, and now their season is over.

With eight games left, the fragile Flames fitted themselves with toe tags in the desert, coughing up their latest lead to lose 5-2 to the Coyotes, arguably the worst team in the NHL.

It came one day after a 4-0 loss to Vegas, giving the Flames three wins in their last 11.

Hardly the type of late-season push playoff-quality clubs are made of.

It’s not the first time someone has come home from a Vegas sojourn empty-handed, but when the chips were down on a playoff race the Flames used to be in the middle of, they folded.

Again.

It has been a theme of late for a team that certainly had the talent to be amongst the West’s elite eight.

It fell short in moxie, character, focus and the ability to rise to the occasion.

Yes, the month-long injury to team MVP Mike Smith was a contributing factor that saw two rookie backups go 5-6-2 to jettison the Flames from a playoff perch.

However, upon Smith’s return he was unable to mask the problems this team has had all season.

Save for a stellar shutout against the Oilers last week, he was part of the problem throughout the team’s second-half collapse, posting a sub-.900 save percentage.

The Flames will now play for nothing but pride. (AP)

Brilliantly illustrating the fragility of this club is the when-it-rains-it-pours stat outlining the fact that 22 times this season the Flames allowed two goals within a two-minute span.

Instead of being able to regroup or push back after being scored on, the Flames too often let things spiral out of control.

Down the stretch the Flames repeatedly found themselves leading games or outshooting opponents by a wide margin before an opposing goal turned into two or three, which turned wins into losses.

The streakiness that has marked this franchise the last two seasons peaked just before the CBA-mandated five-day break mid-January when the Flames won seven in a row.

Since then the Flames have gone 10-13-6, thanks to poor goaltending, a hapless power play, the league’s fourth-worst home record, the Smith injury and the continued inability of the third and fourth lines to contribute in any meaningful way.

Following losses to Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, Gulutzan identified before Christmas just how tentative his team seemed in the spotlight.

The big games were their Kryptonite.

The pressure became crippling down the stretch, leading to where the Flames sit now – nowhere.

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Compounding the angst for Calgary fans is the fact that this team can’t even start to refocus on playing for a better draft pick as their first-rounder belongs to the Islanders as part of the Travis Hamonic deal.

It was not lottery-protected.

They’ll sit out the draft’s second round as well, thanks to the Hamonic deal, which also sends a second-rounder to Brooklyn in 2019.

The pricey pickup did little to turn the Flames blue line into one of the most vaunted in the league, as predicted by many. Hamonic spent the year trying to cover for the wayward escapades of partner T.J. Brodie, who was minus-16 for a reason.

The Flames’ top pairing of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton has once again been among the league’s best, as has the team’s top line.

Johnny Gaudreau was consistently among the league’s top-10 scorers, Sean Monahan eclipsed the 30-goal mark again and Micheal Ferland sits at 21.

Matthew Tkachuk continued to prove he’s one of the most complete young players in the game with 24 goals on a second line that faced the opposition’s best every night.

The top two units got no support from below as Kris Versteeg missed 49 games with an injury, the Jaromir Jagr experiment was derailed by injuries, rookie centre Mark Jankowski faded after an impressive start and Sam Bennett continues to struggle offensively.

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With eight games left, the 11th-place Flames sit six points back of Wednesday’s opponent, Anaheim, among other teams. However, they’d need seven points to eclipse them all as they’d lose the playoff tiebreakers.

A run of the table would put the Flames at 96 points, which still likely wouldn’t be enough since they’d also have to leapfrog playoff outsiders St. Louis and Dallas.

It’s futile.

The wildly underachieving club will now play for nothing but pride and jobs next year as GM Brad Treliving digs into figuring out which moves of significance he’ll have to make to change the nature of a team still on the upswing.

The coaching staff will undoubtedly come under the heaviest scrutiny.

A season of tremendous intrigue and promise has been dashed by a persistent inability to rise to the occasion, dating back to the Ducks’ four-game sweep of the Flames last spring.

So this year they’ll watch the playoffs from the sideline, wondering how different the team will look next fall when the club reconvenes.

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