PITTSBURGH, Pa – The last time Sid and his kids faced the Calgary Flames the beat-down was historic.
A 9-1 spanking at the Saddledome earlier this season marked the Flames’ worst home loss in 18 years. Players used words like humbling and embarrassing to describe the two-and-a-half hour lesson in humility. The word they didn’t use was blessing.
However, that’s how it is now remembered by a handful of players, as it sparked one of the most monumental turnarounds in franchise lore.
“That’s one way to see it,” shrugged Garnet Hathaway on the eve of the club’s return engagement in Steeltown Saturday afternoon. “If you look back at it now some people might say it was a blessing. I think it was a teaching point – a learning moment for a lot of us. Obviously you never want that.
“I don’t think it’s necessary, but in a way I think we’ve definitely grown stronger after that game. Would that have happened even if the score wasn’t 9-1, you don’t know.”
Just ten games into his tenure as the Flames coach, Bill Peters punctuated the setback by suggesting, “we’re going to learn a lot about this club next game.” Sitting at .500 and potentially quite fragile, the Flames rebounded two nights later with a gutsy effort against the defending Stanley Cup champions, tying the game late before losing to the Caps in a shootout. It kickstarted an unlikely 29-11-7 run since then, which is the second-best record in the NHL behind Tampa.
“I don’t think it’s ever a blessing when you get blown out, but I don’t think you can overlook how it changed things,” said Travis Hamonic, who returned to the lineup that night after missing time due to facial fractures. “It forced us to learn we’ve got to play the right way. From then I think we set a standard of how we have to play defensively – how the coach wants – and how we can play offensively. And we went on a little bit of a run after that.
“No one wants to get spanked 9-1, especially in your own building. Those are long nights. But it was important not to dwell on that one.”
They clearly didn’t.
“I think it was a good thing to happen to us,” said David Rittich, who relieved Mike Smith in the third, allowing two goals. “We had a good talk about our play and our game after that and I think everyone thought about it and we started playing our game. It wasn’t a good night but it’s a long season and these games are going to happen every year to each team. You have to learn and move on.”
A quick meeting to discuss the turn of events was followed by a good practice in which Peters resisted the old school urge to bag skate the lads. Similar process this time, as the players met following their lackluster effort in Tampa Tuesday and responded with a similar shootout loss Thursday against the Panthers.
“You’d rather lose one (blowout) and then go on an 8-2 run then lose them all by one goal and think, ‘we’re right there’ and be a .500-type team – I’d rather not do that,” said Peters, who had to wonder at the time about what sort of moxie his new team had.
“It’s a tough lesson to learn and it’s one we had to learn obviously and became better. It’s a severe wakeup call. You’re sitting there going through it with a relatively new team early in the year and we got embarrassed at home.
“We didn’t play well and didn’t play hard enough. Guys just realized that, looked in the mirror and the guys dug in. We changed a couple things, nothing too severe, but the guys did a god job responding and I expect a good response here.”
Indeed, the timing of their rematch is interesting given the Flames have recently run into more turbulence, losing four in a row for the first time this year and five of six since the break.
“We’ve had adversity once this year and we have a little bit for, maybe, really the second time, and I expect us to handle the adversity properly,” said the coach. “Now we’ve come to another point in the season we have to take another step as a group.”
The Flames skated at Pittsburgh’s practice facility Friday, ahead of their finale tilt in a four-game roadie in which they are 0-1-2.
“Now we’re in a little bit of a slump too, so hopefully in Pittsburgh we can change things too,” said Michael Frolik. “That (9-1 loss) was kind of embarrassing and since then I don’t know what happened but we didn’t want that feeling again.”
One wonders how the team’s recent slide may be affecting GM Brad Treliving’s mindset in terms of potential personnel moves ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
James Neal missed practice with an upper body injury that caused him to leave Thursday’s game. Curtis Lazar was summoned from Stockton for the first time since his demotion out of training camp after scoring 16 goals and 36 points in 46 games for the Heat. The Flames’ worst loss since then was two goals until the Sharks and Lightning beat them by three.
“When you have a night like that [when you are on the wrong end] it’s almost pointless to go over anything,” said Crosby when asked about the memorable beating he kickstarted with an early goal.
“Anything that can go wrong, does, so you have to turn the page and at the same time take something from it. I think they’ve been able to do that. Obviously they had a big trip at the start of the year too (to China), so it wasn’t easy coming back from that. It took a while for them to get their feet under them. But they’ve been playing great hockey and it will be a challenge for us tomorrow.”