It wasn’t the ideal start to a day for Geoff Ward, who woke up to news his good friend and long-time colleague Claude Julien had been fired.
It was a stark reminder of the intense pressure on every coach to win and how quickly their fate can change.
“I don’t know if the schedule, the way it’s packed together, if it’s any different, but I think the emotion of the Canadian division is starting to come to the front,” said the Flames coach when asked if the 56-game schedule ratchets up the heat in every market.
“Because of that the rivalries are ramping up a little bit and with the division being so tight, it can sway perspective very easily one way or the other.”
Ward knows that as well as anyone as the vitriol being directed his way by a frustrated fanbase during the team’s recent three-game losing streak dissipated somewhat after its 3-0 bounce-back win Monday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
For a few days anyway, Ward wasn’t the focal point on sports talk radio or social media discourse in Calgary.
Having employed four coaches in six years already, there’s little chance general manager Brad Treliving is considering using Ward as his scapegoat anytime soon, despite the wildly inconsistent swings of a team scuffling along at 9-9-1.
However, all coaches know in the recesses of their overtaxed minds that everyone has a shelf life.
“To be honest, I don’t think any of us are thinking like that — once you get into the daily routine of coaching it’s amazing how much from the outside you don’t hear,” said Ward, whose club sits a disappointing fifth in the North Division heading into Wednesday’s rematch vs. the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena.
“All of us have been around long enough to understand we’re all trying to get our teams’ better every day and you can only worry about what you can control.”
His focus Wednesday morning was ensuring his team responds appropriately to a win the club needs to use as a springboard to getting back into a playoff position.
Sublime goaltending from backup David Rittich played the biggest role in the Flames’ surprising win, as the club killed off all seven power plays and scored twice with the man advantage.
They scored a first period goal for the first time in six games and spent the rest of the night focused on the defensive details they’ve let slide over the last few weeks.
“We can’t get carried away from last game and get too high on ourselves,” said Mikael Backlund, the team’s best penalty killer alongside Elias Lindholm.
“We know they’ll come with a push so we’ve got to be prepared for that. We’ve got to have a good first period and build from that.”
And stay out of the penalty box, as another seven power-play chances for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares & Co. couldn’t possibly end well a second straight outing.
The Flames are obviously expected to start Rittich again, even though Ward left the door open for a possible return of injured starter Jacob Markstrom.
“He’s still day-to-day right now,” said Ward of the upper-body ailment that made Markstrom a surprise scratch Monday.
“We’ll see how it goes through the rest of the day. If he can play, he will. If he can’t, it will be on to the next day. We’re hopeful sooner rather than later, but right now it’s something we’ll have to wait on a daily basis.”
No other lineup changes are expected for the Flames, while the Leafs announced Zach Hyman will draw back into the lineup alongside Matthews and Marner.
It’s another huge test for the Flames who will jet off to Ottawa after the game to play four straight against Matthew Tkachuk’s younger brother Brady and the bottom-feeding Senators.
Not being complacent following their breakthrough win is key around Flames camp.
“There’s no relief — it’s a win,” said Ward.
“We’ve talked about it, we have that 12-hour window and now we’re on to tonight. We feel like we won the hockey game because of the things we did. Relief is sort of something where there’s a connotation there was some luck involved with it. We need to build off of what we did and those things we did that led to us winning that game.”
If they can do that, Ward can continue staving off more talk of a coaching change like the one that cost Julien his job Monday.
“With the formation of the NHL Coaches’ Association, we’ve become a pretty close fraternity and every time you see a coach get fired it’s an unfortunate thing,” said Ward who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins as Julien’s assistant.
“But when it’s a guy that’s a friend, and I certainly owe him an awful lot, it’s hard. I sent him a text this morning and haven’t heard back – I didn’t expect to. He’ll bounce back when he wants to. Somebody else will benefit from what happened today.”