Short-lived hope hits turbulence

STEVE MacFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:10 AM ET

If disappointment was the predominant feeling in the visitors locker-room at the United Center Sunday afternoon, complete and utter distress must have flown through the recycled air on the Calgary Flames charter later that day as they flew back to the city. Beating the San Jose Sharks 5-4 in a dramatic overtime game hours after the Flames lost in much less exciting fashion by dropping a 4-1 decision to the Blackhawks in Chicago, the Colorado Avalanche pulled out of the deadlock in the race for the NHL Western Conference’s final playoff position. It’ll take some serious heart for the Flames to forget their troubles and win all three of their remaining games to give themselves an opportunity of overtaking the Avalanche. Heading into the matinee game against the Blackhawks, the Flames were feeling pretty good about themselves. Escaping Denver with a 2-1 victory over the Avs, they were on one of their biggest highs of the season. Winning the head-to-head battle shot them into a tie for the eighth seed as they headed to the Windy City. But the Blackhawks blew them away, and that feeling of elation turned to a wave of nausea. The Flames knew they handed the Avs an extra game in hand. Making good on it immediately, the Avalanche put on a gutsy performance against the conference’s top seed and turned the standings tie into a two-point lead once again. Overcoming a 2-0 deficit on goals from defenceman Kyle Quincey and winger Peter Mueller in the second period, they took the lead on Mueller’s second goal and then struck again early in the third. It didn’t last, as the Sharks showed some bite and sent the game into overtime. But John-Michael Liles came through with the winner. If the Flames didn’t know the score by the time they landed, they found out shortly thereafter. And now the real soul-searching begins. With three games to go, the Flames can hit a maximum of 95 points. The Avs now have 91. Two more wins in their four remaining games will put the Avs in the playoffs. That’s if the Flames win all three of their own, starting Tuesday night against the visiting Sharks. For weeks already, the Flames have known they’d need help. Now, they’re on life support, and the Avalanche have the ability to pull the plug. The easy thing to do is quit. Odds are against them, with the Avs owning the tiebreakers, meaning the Flames have to finish ahead of them by at least a point to make it to the post-season for a sixth straight campaign. Going down without a fight — the way they did against the Blackhawks after getting down early — is what some might expect considering the lack of leadership from the star performers the last few weeks. It will take the best from every single player sitting on the bench to make it now, and even that might not be enough to get them into a first-round meeting against the Sharks or the Blackhawks. The next week will tell you a lot about this team. It might also determine how similar — or how very different — it could look next season. steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

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