CALGARY – In many ways, last year’s All-Star break marked the beginning of the end for the Calgary Flames.
Entering the break six points up on its Pacific Division challengers, the NHL’s second-place team was unable to continue its momentum upon its return.
Fading down the stretch with little to play for, the Flames were slaughtered in the first round.
“It wasn’t the same team after the break, for sure,” said Flames interim coach Geoff Ward.
“We’ve talked about it an awful lot.”
The discussions the last few weeks with the players have revolved around how best to try ensuring the team takes a step forward – as opposed to regressing – after the break.
After all, their post-break slide has come two years in a row.
“After the break, the good teams get better. For the guys who have won before, it’s like a different season and they get to a new level of focus and a new level of performance. There are also teams that are in races already and every night is like a playoff game for them.
“Then you get a team like ours.”
A team that felt very little impetus to step up their game following a stunning 33-13-5 record that had a handful of players destined for career-years offensively.
“We didn’t have any playoff experience and we weren’t in those tough games,” said Ward, an assistant last year who watched the Flames lose five of six after the break. (That was actually an improvement from a year earlier when they lost six in a row.)
“So we took those losses and just said, ‘we’re still okay.’ We didn’t take the right messages out of those losses. When we got to playoff time we were not in a position where we were set up to be successful because of the way we went in.”
Ward isn’t the only one who ties the team’s post-break blues to its five-game faceplant against the Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs.
“Last year we didn’t necessarily come back after this break and play our best hockey, and that kind of showed in the playoffs,” said Matthew Tkachuk, one of three Flames whose seven-day break was interrupted by all-star duties.
“We have to come back ready to go because there’s no room for error right now with where we are and where we want to be. These are our playoffs.”
And that could benefit the team, as the Flames have no choice but to rise to the occasion given how tenuous a playoff spot is with 32 games remaining.
The Flames are in a Pacific Division dogfight so tight that the league hasn’t seen the likes of it this late in the season since 1987, when the top-five teams in the Norris were separated by a lone point.
“I think it’s better for us that we’re in a situation where we’re in now,” said Ward, whose 26-19-5 club is 14 points behind the 71-point mark it sat at this time last season.
“We’re in that pack of teams trying to get in. It forces us to be a little more desperate.”
The Flames host the defending champion St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, followed by a home-and-home with the Edmonton Oilers bound to stir the emotions given their last controversial fracas.
No excuses this time, as there is plenty to get up for.
“I can’t sit here and put my finger on what happened last year at this time because we didn’t change anything,” said GM Brad Treliving, whose team has won seven of its last nine games.
“But it’s something we’ve talked about — making sure we’re cognizant of it. One thing I think is we weren’t playing great going into the break last year. I think we’re playing a lot better this year.”
Gone is the offence that finished second in the league last season, making it hard for the Flames to “outscore their mistakes,” as Ward puts it.
The team is getting more and more comfortable in low-scoring games in which defence and goaltending have been key to the team’s recent surge.
“We don’t need to be winning games by four or five goals – it’s a tight league,” said Sean Monahan.
“Right now it’s not about guys scoring 120 points, or whatever, it’s about the two points every night. That’s the team mindset right now. You can feel the confidence in the room.
“I thought we started off really well last year until about this point last year, game 50. After the break, I don’t know what it was. The league changes, things get tighter, and it gets harder. I don’t know if we thought it was going to come easy or what it was, but we got outperformed almost every night after that. We had no momentum going into the playoffs. But there are no excuses for that. Playoff hockey is a whole different animal.”
An animal Flames fans won’t get a chance to see up close unless the team’s stretch run improves from the previous two.