No more moral victories as Flames continue free fall

Justin Schultz delivered in overtime, scoring to get the Penguins a 4-3 win over the visiting Flames.

Optimists will suggest the Calgary Flames finally stopped the bleeding on a season that appears perilously close to being lost.

Realists will point out it’s still not good enough.

A gutsy 4-3 overtime loss to the two-time defending champion Penguins Monday in Pittsburgh might have been cause to celebrate earlier in the season.

However, with 15 games left in a tight playoff race the Flames have fallen behind in with four-straight losses, the squandered point was a devastating blow. Especially considering how well the Flames played after spotting the Penguins a 2-0 lead in the first three minutes.

Not surprisingly, the early deficit had plenty to do with the team’s subpar goaltending of late, as an ill-advised attempt to clear the zone by emergency call-up Jon Gillies was easily knocked down by Evgeni Malkin and deposited into an open net.

Given how bad things have been going ever since team MVP Mike Smith went down with a lingering lower-body injury three weeks back, few could have expected the team to show a resilience that had the game knotted at two before the first period was over.

However, it seems whenever the Flames appear poised to zig, they zag.

Following winning streaks that have the Flames masquerading as a top-10 team, they generally degenerate into a shell of their former self.

And that is where they sit now, losers of eight of the 11 games played since Smith fell awkwardly, writhing in pain in the final second of a road win in Brooklyn Feb. 11.

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Rookie David Rittich, whose record was a stellar 5-0-2 with a 1.92 GAA and .938 save percentage as Smith’s backup this year, is since 1-4-1 with a 4.41 GAA and .864 save percentage.

Gillies has been better at 2-2-1 with a 2.79 GAA.

Yet, he has lost three in a row.

As he has been prone to do in almost every one of his five NHL starts, there was Gillies in the latter stages of a 3-3 road battle at PPG Paints Arena, struggling with what should be a routine save. He somehow bobbled a 170-foot shot from Olli Maatta, which squeezed through his pads after an awkward bounce in front of him. The puck was slowly heading across the goal line before he reached his paddle back and, with the help of Mark Giordano, cleared it off the line.

The players can be forgiven for having lost confidence in the very position that once made them one of the league’s most dangerous road clubs this year.

As Miikka Kiprusoff did for a handful of seasons in Calgary, Smith’s early season performance clearly masked many of the ailments on a team still a year or two away from being consistent enough to scare anyone.

By then, the 35-year-old Smith will be gone, likely leaving the squad to the likes of, well, Rittich and Gillies.

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To heap the Flames’ recent woes on the two understudies – who have a combined 19 NHL starts – is entirely unfair as the team seems to find new ways to lose of late.

Last week they felt solid efforts against Dallas and the Rangers were ruined by Herculean efforts by Ben Bishop and Henrik Lundqvist.

Penguins starter Tristan Jarry was rock solid throughout the Flames’ late push Monday, stopping 32 shots in yet another outing in which the Calgary offence has been stymied.

In their current four-game losing streak the Flames are 0-for-16 on the power play and have been outscored 14-7.

No wonder GM Brad Treliving wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to sink more resources into a team that has done little to show of late it is capable of running with the big boys with regularity.

Johnny Gaudreau snapped a four-game scoring slump Monday with an assist, but appeared snakebitten the rest of the night, including an overtime breakaway he misfired on moments before Justin’s Schultz’s game-winner.

Frustration has been mounting, as witnessed by Glen Gulutzan’s bench minors in consecutive games last week, leading to a controversial embellishment call against Gaudreau that so enraged the Lady Byng winner he then earned a 10-minute misconduct.

Of all the questions circulating around the team, the biggest is when Saviour Smith will be healthy enough to return to a playoff race that has the Flames three points behind wild-card resident Los Angeles, with two other teams between them.

If the Flames know, they aren’t saying.

Fact is, what is believed to be a hip ailment for Smith had kept him off skates for over a week before a recent return to the ice recently had team brass glowing with optimism. Things were "improving," but a return was "not imminent."

Optimism is in short order around Calgary these days where people are starting to come to grips with the notion that a season full of tremendous individual achievements may soon end without a playoff reward.

Gaudreau has elevated to superstar status, Micheal Ferland is a 20-goal scorer, Matthew Tkachuk is one of the league’s most impactful youngsters, Smith was an all-star and Sean Monahan is poised to score 30 once again.

However, the team’s bottom six forwards were amongst the league’s most impotent, the vaunted blue line has been average at best and goaltending depth is now an issue.

Adding to the Flames’ uphill battle is the fact they trail most teams they are battling with in the ROW column, meaning they can’t tie them at season’s end.

Their free fall in the standings may be aided by safety nets, of sorts, in Buffalo Wednesday and Ottawa Friday.

Anything less than two wins would be devastating, as there are no more moral victories out there for this bunch.

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