Few expected the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks to play as if something was on the line Saturday night.
Turns out, it just took them a while to warm up to the idea.
They turned what looked early on like a spiritless stinker into a scrappy affair, with the Canucks sneaking away with a 3-2 overtime victory.
With the Flames already eliminated from playoff contention and the Canucks having wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top team in the regular-season, there was nothing at stake but pride — a speech that typically only works in the movies.
For the first period of the nationally televised contest, that was pretty evident.
Protecting themselves seemed to be the Canucks’ top priority.
Looking exactly as you might expect a team to look knowing it was the last game they’d play this year, the Flames were, for the most part, simply going through the motions.
Aside from a fairly focused goaltender in Henrik Karlsson, who made just his second start since Jan. 21, and an always invested Mark Giordano, who angrily flung the bottom half of his stick away when it snapped on a one-time attempt on a Flames powerplay, there weren’t many obvious displays of emotional involvement.
But give them credit for spicing things up in the second period and making the surprisingly large crowd at the Saddledome feel like they were still watching a meaningful NHL contest.
Jarome Iginla’s powerplay goal seemed to spark both sides 2:39 into the second stanza.
It also tied him with former Flame Lanny McDonald for 75th on the NHL all-time scorers list with 1,006 regular-season points.
Mikael Backlund made it 2-0 Flames about nine minutes later, guaranteeing despite a comeback by the visitors that the 2010-11 finale against the Canucks would surpass the previous edition — a 7-3 pasting at the hands of their west-coast rivals a year ago in Vancouver.
That one left a bad taste in their mouths, and maybe they remembered the sting and embarrassment of going out on such a sour note.
“We don’t want to lose against them, and they don’t want to lose against us. It’s a big rivalry,” said Backlund.
“That makes this game really competitive — it doesn’t matter if it’s an exhibition game or the last game of the year, it’s always gonna be tough and competitive.”
The resistance reminded the Canucks they still have plenty of hockey to play.
Only when Ryan Kesler limped off after an awkward battle for the puck along the boards resulted in a twist of the ankle, and Rene Bourque hobbled to the bench after taking a blocked shot in a tough spot did anyone pause to question whether or not playing hard in a meaningless game was actually worth it.
For fans who pay good money to watch these two rivals go at it, the answer was a resounding yes.
Among the highlights was a third-period screaming match after the whistle between Alex Burrows and Iginla that might have escalated into a scrap if not for the meddling linesmen.
They traded verbal jabs all the way into the penalty box, and the crowd only got louder as it went on.
“You don’t want to drag someone into a fight and have them get hurt before the playoffs — as much as we don’t love their team, and I’m sure they don’t love us, you don’t want to do that,” Iginla said afterward.
“At the same time, the fly-by, whatever that was ... I guess temper got the best of me there.
“We know that being out, as tough as that is, you want to still respect the game.”
And the fans, who were saluted by the Flames at centre ice after the final buzzer.
As a throw-away game at the end of a long season, the night won’t be remembered for long.
But for more than 40 minutes, the players made their fans forget the pain of knowing this is it for them until the fall.