As exciting as the Calgary Flames first half was for a city starving for good news, you can bet everyone in town was aware of the hurdle ahead.
No, not just the defending champs in D.C., but the balance of a schedule that was the Flames’ undoing last year.
Oh sure, the NHL’s best team in the Western Conference is undoubtedly far better equipped to ride out the balance of the regular season without too much turbulence.
However, players new and old in Cowtown have been reminded endlessly the Flames entered last year’s CBA mandated break with seven wins in a row, only to lose six straight after the five-day hiatus.
Ultimately it cost them a playoff spot as Mike Smith went down with an injury soon thereafter and everything fell apart.
This time, they entered the break on an 8-0-1 run before a nine-day rest halted their momentum.
Returning to action Friday in Washington, the Flames ran out of third-period miracles in a 4-3 loss that featured a two-goal comeback ultimately spoiled by a pretty last-minute power-play goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov.
No Ovie, no problem for the struggling Capitals, as the captain looked on while serving his one-game suspension for skipping the NHL All-Star Game.
Here are some takeaways from a Flames team that lost in regulation for the first time in 10 outings.
Don’t even dream about pinning this one on Smith, who bore the brunt of most criticism in Calgary throughout the first half.
Five-bell stops on Lars Eller early and John Carlson late sandwiched a 27-save effort that represented just his third regulation loss in his last 12 decisions.
Yes, you read that right.
He’s been steadily recovering from a horrid beginning of the season to earn the first start out of the break.
Some will question the decision to start Smith over the red-hot David Rittich, but truth be told, Bill Peters did a masterful job picking starters throughout the first half.
Smith’s start was easily justified.
The Caps’ winning goal was a world-class snipe over Smith’s shoulder on the short side few goalies in the world could have stopped from close range.
No other goals were stinkers.
A confident Smith will be key to any success this team might have this spring.
Rittich will likely return to action Sunday in Carolina, as he should.
GAUDREAU SPARKS COMEBACK AND FIREWORKS
Johnny Gaudreau’s day started with honours as the NHL’s first star of January, and ended with a solid cheap shot from Nicklas Backstrom that sparked a spirited melee after the final horn.
Truth be told, Backstrom was simply responding to a cross check by Gaudreau on Brooks Orpik seconds earlier.
Either way, Orpik fought Matthew Tkachuk, Tom Wilson wrestled Rasmus Andersson to the ice and popped him a few for good measure.
Prior to that, Gaudreau had an assist on Elias Lindholm’s game-tying tally with eight minutes left to give him 10 goals and 13 assists in his last 13 outings.
In January, he had points in all but one game, building a career-high 11-game point-streak that ended just before the break.
Not bad for a guy who was named the second star in December.
Lindholm’s first-half explosion played a big role in Gaudreau’s ascension to Hart Trophy candidacy.
Lindholm was once again one of the most dangerous Flame all night before scoring a late goal that many likely figured would be good enough to salvage at least one road point for the visitors.
Alas, it simply set up the heartbreaking winner by Kuznetsov, while also extending Lindholm’s point streak to nine games (2-9-11).
He’s still killing penalties, playing on the power play and taking key draws, despite suggestions by Peters he might soon diminish the Swede’s penalty-killing role.
Neal watch: In almost 15 minutes of ice time, James Neal managed three shots, one of which was a pretty no-look pass from linemate Mark Jankowski that ended with Braden Holtby robbery. Many are holding out hope it’s near-misses like these that demonstrate Neal will eventually be able to snap out of a malaise that has him with five goals so far … Mikael Backlund’s one-handed back-hand stunner to open the Flames scoring late in the first was the type of beauty we’ll be seeing in year-end highlight reel shows. Sadly, it was his penalty late in the evening that set the table for Kuznetsov’s winner … Travis Hamonic left the game with an injury he tried to come back from earlier, leaving the squad to play half the night with five blue liners. If he is to miss Sunday’s game in Carolina, it may open the door for a call-up of Juuso Valimaki, who is on a conditioning stint in Stockton.