Flames face must-win scenario

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:55 PM ET

When it comes to letting themselves down, this year’s Calgary Flames are habitual offenders.

That’s how they got to this point this late in the NHL season.

Any loss over their last six games likely completely quashes their playoff hopes.

Like an employee on probation, they know they can’t mess up. Not even once.

They’re like career criminals who have two strikes to their name.

But instead of treading carefully, the Flames loosened up after starting their three-game road trip with a pair of losses last week.

It doesn’t make much sense, but what has seemed logical during a year that saw this team start as Stanley Cup favourites and finish as a desperate club trying to salvage a season?

“Maybe you play a little bit looser,” defenceman Cory Sarich said with a shrug Tuesday morning, doing his best to explain the mental makeup of a team that lost all flexibility by dropping games against the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins, before beating the Washington Capitals with nothing short of running the table and getting help expected to get them into the playoffs.

“Some might think you tighten up, but we’ve gotta win, so you might as well just go out there and throw it all on the line and try to do it.

“The last game showed the desperation that we need, and this next game better show it.

“And it better continue on going forward.”

Beating the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday night will take that same level of desperation. If successful, so will the head-to-head battle Friday against the Colorado Avalanche, who currently sit four points ahead of the Flames in the eighth and final post-season seeding in the Western Conference.

So where was that mentality when they needed it during a nine-game winless drought in January?

Where was it when they headed to the Olympics with a stretch of seven games with just one opponent a playoff contender at the time?

Where was it last week in New York and Boston when they believed they weren’t going to get any help from the Los Angeles Kings or Colorado Avalanche and still came up short?

Most importantly, why does it seem like this team needs things to come down to one final loss that would crush them before they start to play like their season is on the line?

“You don’t want it to ever get to that point,” said Sarich. “If you let yourself get (there) ... I don’t know if things switch mentally or it’s physically that guys make the change, but something happens when your back’s against the wall.

“I think it’s just a little bit of instinct that kicks in.”

A scary thought is what instinct would kick in if the worst comes to pass and the Flames are eliminated before returning home from a two-game trek through Denver and Chicago this week?

If you thought the Flames have played poorly when things mattered most this season, what’s going to happen when there’s nothing left to play for but pride?

The sight of empty stands may finally wash out the Sea of Red.

“Probably if you don’t win, you’re out,” said veteran Craig Conroy. “That’s the way we’re feeling going into the next game — that we just have to do it.

“We have an opportunity. Win (Tuesday), and you pull yourself that much closer to Colorado getting to play Colorado.”

There’s still hope, yes. Very faint.

But like those career criminals, there’s a better chance of them re-offending than finally turning things around.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca


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