The playoffs may not be here just yet, but the war of attrition generally associated with the post-season has begun for the Calgary Flames.
After being unscathed by the injury bug all season long, the Flames lined up Saturday minus three regular starters. By night’s end they’d lost a fourth. And the game.
Injuries aren’t the only thing mounting in Calgary these days – so are losses. That's three in a row for a team that has only won four of its last ten. Not the way the coach or any of his players want to roll into the playoffs.
On Saturday, the effort was there, the finish wasn’t.
Plenty of that had to do with the brilliance of St. Louis Blues revelation Ville Husso, who made 39 saves in a 6-4 Blues win.
The other deciding factor revolved around an evening of deficient defensive zone coverage by a Flames club that generally knows better.
“Probably a good time for a road trip here,” said Milan Lucic, whose club heads out on a three-game California swing Sunday that ends in Seattle next Saturday. “It feels like we haven’t had one for two months. We have to approach this one like we did the first one in Detroit.”
Might be a good idea given Monday’s tilt is against a surging L.A. club that crawled to within three points of the Flames Saturday.
“Big games, all divisional games, especially Monday,” said Lucic, whose club has three games in hand on the Kings. “Now they are three points behind us. Good time to get away and get together as a group and as a team on the road again.”
An off-day Tuesday in Anaheim, with temperatures expected to be 25 degrees, should do wonders for a bunch that hasn’t played quite to its identity or potential of late.
There were several good signs Saturday for a club that found itself down 1-0 in the first minute. Again.
The fourth line, which learned earlier in the day it would be without Sean Monahan due to season-ending hip surgery, evened the score with a Brett Ritchie goal that got the crowd back into it. Led by Lucic, they were fantastic all night.
With Ryan Carpenter now the de facto fourth line centre moving forward, the line was also instrumental in the game-tying goal scored by Noah Hanifin with nine minutes remaining in a 3-3 game.
On the play Lucic brought it into the zone and Carpenter and Ritchie battled hard in front of the net before Hanifins shoveled a backhand in. Ritchie had his right knee pinned awkwardly under Robert Bortuzzo on the play, and left for the evening.
Joining Monahan and Ritchie on the shelf was surprise scratch Calle Jarnkrok, promoting Trevor Lewis to centre the third line.
Nor is playing without Oliver Kylington, which the team also had to deal with following his face-first collision into the boards two nights earlier, leaving him day-to-day and prompting the callup of Connor Mackey.
Michael Stone filled Kylington's shoes admirably on the second pairing, playing almost 20 minutes alongside Chris Tanev.
The backbreaker for the Flames came with just under two minutes remaining, as Australian – yes, Austrailian – Nathan Walker took a nifty Robert Thomas pass alone in the high slot and beat Jacob Markstrom to put the visitors up 4-3.
It was the third goal of the evening in which the Flames allowed a Blues forward to find open space in the slot for an easy conversion.
“It’s something we can’t allow them to do – that’s not the identity of our team,” said Hanifin. “We’re not going to have success in the long run doing that. Not trying to win a game 6-5.”
The Blues went up 5-3 with an empty-netter before a Dillon Dube goal made it slightly interesting with 37 seconds left. Another empty netter sent the crowd of 16,422 unhappy, despite the Flames outshooting the Blues 43-25.
“It’s not how we want to finish up before we go on a road trip but, if anything, it’s the understanding we have to dig in and it’s not going to get easier on the road,” said associate coach Kirk Muller.
“Everyone is playing for something. We’ve got to feel comfortable playing in these games and keep our identity, which is playing away from the puck. Not get frustrated and be the team thinking, ‘this is okay and that’s how we want to play.’ We can’t crack – we have to make other teams crack.”