GLENDALE, Ariz. — Returning home with just one goal to show for two road games, the Calgary Flames are in unfamiliar territory.
One of the most potent offences in the league has been held in check the last few weeks, scoring more than two goals just once in their last eight games.
On Thursday they were shut out, losing 2-0 to the surging Coyotes for the squad’s fourth-straight regulation loss. In that span they have just five goals. A new low for the Western Conference leaders in a season largely devoid of hardship.
Well, they’re facing plenty of it now.
“I’d rather go through adversity now than Game 83,” said Flames goalie Mike Smith, who made 23 saves in a Coyotes-designed defensive battle. “There’s a lot of learning to do still, but there’s time left here. Obviously we don’t want to go on a slide here where it’s two or three weeks and we don’t feel good going into the playoffs. We want to fix it now.
“There are still spots in the game where you need your best players to be your best players, but you need everyone to contribute somehow.”
The Flames’ best players haven’t acted as such since the all-star break, with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk playing far below the gold standard they set in the first half.
Alas, the game has changed.
Defence is the focus, space and time are at a premium and goals require far more grease than finesse to get the job done.
The question throughout this magical season for the Flames was how’d they react to when the noose tightens, the stakes rise and the glare of the spotlight threatens to become blinding.
Consistency has been the team’s hallmark this year, which is being threatened with a divisional roadie in which the only goal scored was by defenceman Travis Hamonic.
Critics might suggest these are closer to the real Flames than we’ve been led to believe. Well, with the Flames heading home for eight of their next 10 and nine of their last 14, we’re about to find out more about this club than we have all year long.
“It’s how we take it, though,” said Smith. “You can take it one of two ways — you can pout about it and get frustrated and let it affect the way you play. Or you can take it as motivation we need to be better.
“I think that’s what we want to do. We have a group in here that wants to do the right thing and wants to win, but it’s going to take an elevation of our game. We’ve been good for a lot of the season but this is the time when everyone gets a little bit better and we need to jump on board with that too.”
In a game completely devoid of the playoff atmosphere they thrived in one night earlier when they lost 2-1 in Vegas, the Flames fell behind 10 minutes in when Clayton Keller’s conversion of a 2-on-1 brought some of the 13,341 in attendance to their feet.
Early in the third, the Coyotes went up 2-0 with a Jakob Chychrun point blast that beat an off-balance Smith. The Flames challenged it on the grounds Smith was interfered with due to a Christian Dvorak crosscheck on Noah Hanifin that knocked him into his keeper.
It was allowed to stand, so for the second straight night, the Flames came up on the short end of the Situation Room’s coin flip.
“I thought he got pushed from behind,” said Smith, who later stopped a Vinnie Hinostroza penalty shot to keep the game within reach.
“It is what it is. You can’t do anything about it. Last game, personally, I didn’t know how it was going to go. Tonight it’s another instance of that. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. No sense getting up in arms over it — you’ve just got to refocus and try to get back at it.”
They did, but Arizona netminder Darcy Kuemper would have none of it, stopping all 30 shots he faced, keeping his squad three points back of a wild-card spot.
Flames coach Bill Peters said he wasn’t optimistic the goal would be overturned but thought it was worth challenging.
“This one was a roll of the dice on our part,” he said. “It was our guy who was in there. I thought it was worth a try, but no, it wasn’t a surprise on the outcome.”
The Flames’ lead atop the division and conference was whittled down to one as the San Jose Sharks beat Montreal an hour later.
The Flames may also have lost the services of Sam Bennett, whose head hit the boards awkwardly, causing him to crumple to the ice in a daze. He got to his feet very slowly before skating to the bench and walking gingerly straight to the locker room for obvious concussion protocol tests.
“There is no feeling sorry for ourselves,” said captain Mark Giordano, whose squad faces Vegas at the ‘Dome Sunday, giving fans a preview of what will very likely be the Flames’ first-round opponent. “We’re generating a lot. We’re getting a lot of looks. I think it’s human nature to start over-thinking it and over-passing it when it’s not going in, but we just have to put pucks there and then bang one home.
“I think the thing we can take away is how teams are buckling down and grinding. Every blocked shot, every little play becomes big now at this time of year.”
Gaudreau, who has one goal in his last 18 games, knows the onus is on him and his linemates to somehow regain the scoring touch that catapulted his team into their unlikely perch in the Pacific.
“We have to put it behind us,” said Gaudreau, echoing the sentiments of his teammates.
“I think we’d rather have things not going great right now and learn from our mistakes, rather than towards the beginning of April when playoffs start. We have to clean up a lot of things and get back after it for the rest of March.”