SUN Hockey Pool

Flames bad start doomed them

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:00 PM ET

It wasn’t Wednesday’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks that doomed the Calgary Flames’ playoff fantasy.

But its significance this late in the season is the reason so many pundits wrote the team off before Christmas in the first place.

You can’t play poorly for the better part of the first three months of the NHL season and still hope for a turnaround capable of clinching one of the eight post-season spots available in your conference.

The Flames nearly proved to be an exception.

Their remarkable record of 24-10-7 from late December to late March brought them to the brink, leaving even those confident enough to declare them dead by the holiday break wondering over the last few weeks whether they’d be eating their own words.

But it was the points that got away from them early on that come back to haunt these Flames — who won’t be able to reflect on that fact themselves until their season is officially over.

As impressive as their efforts were from Dec. 23 until the 4-2 loss to the Ducks at the Saddledome on March 30 — the date that unofficially marks their tombstone as the one that killed their playoff possibilities — the deficit they racked up previously was just too dire to overcome.

Going 14-18-3 over their first 35 games put them in a situation where they were forced to play playoff-style hockey for the final 47. They could not afford a single slip in their quest to win two out of every three contests the rest of the way.

They nearly did it.

Credit their star players Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff for picking up their play.

Give kudos to the grinders and role-players who elevated their games and took on more responsibility as injuries became a factor.

And hope they all learn the underlying lesson when the season comes to a close — do whatever it takes at the start of the year to play the way they did when their backs were against the wall.

As good a team as they were before a slight stumble in the last month of the campaign ultimately ended things on a sour note, they were equally bad early on.

Tripping over themselves with ugly losses to a couple of bad teams in two of their first three contests of the 2010-11 season set the tone.

They found ways to lose close games rather than pull out narrow victories in too many of their more tightly contested outings.

They looked too often like individuals as opposed to a team.

That all changed as players slowly started buying into head coach Brent Sutter’s philosophies.

And nothing brought them together like hitting rock bottom.

The coach was rumoured to be on the chopping block. Iginla and Kiprusoff’s names were being bandied about in tantalizing trade talk.

So after three straight losses against teams that they knew they absolutely had to beat in the week leading up to Christmas — dropping back-to-back, home-and-away decisions to the Minnesota Wild and another on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets — they collaborated for a special win over the Stars in Dallas on Dec. 23.

The shootout victory on the heels of Sutter’s challenge to claim four points out of every three-game segment was a shot of adrenaline for a team desperate for any sort of boost.

But deep down they probably knew, as we all know now, that their fate was never really in their own hands. They’d need help from other teams to make it to the playoffs thanks to their early-season failure.

They can’t or won’t admit it until it’s all over, officially, but they let valuable points slip away over the first few months, and anything short of near perfection the rest of the way would not be enough to make up for it.

That task proved too large.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/MacfarlaneSteve


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