Johnson: Flames’ margin for error shrinks as season nears quarter-pole
Calgary’s NHL club residing far too close to league cellar, must string some wins together
Although not in bad shape for a guy 52 — why just the other day, fooling around in the dressing room, wandering through wearing only a towel and a grin, he was faux-flexing, showing off his guns — Bob Hartley doesn’t harbour any illusions about his desire, or his ability, to try to shimmy up Everest.
Right now, he and his Calgary Flames are stuck at base camp, at the foot of the mountain, and unless they gather provisions and start the trek soon, no Sherpa guide in Nepal will be of any use.
They’ll surely perish on ascent.
“You guys know as well as I do: If you’re stuck in a race and you’re (one of) four or five teams battling in the last 10 games, it’s basically impossible,” acknowledged Hartley, blessedly scarce of sugar-coating after one lousy W in half a dozen Scotiabank Saddledome date finds his charges languishing at the bottom of the Western Conference pecking order.
“While you win, there’s two other teams that win. When you lose, they lose. Suddenly, at the end of 10 games, even though you show a good record, you still didn’t make up the necessary ground.
“It’s now. It is now.
“We need to be better. The Stanley Cup cannot be an object — it has to be a dream. That’s the culture we’re trying to instil in here. I think we’re making some great steps forward but once in a while we’re taking one step backward.”
Most significantly, for the next 20 games maestro Miikka Kiprusoff is nothing but a wistful memory, an MRI revealing that knee injury as a “slight Grade 2 MCL sprain.” No day-to-day anymore. Meaning Leland Irving has officially gone from organizational pariah to messiah.
So it’s not a stretch to imply that these next critical 14 days hold the key to Calgary’s post-season aspirations.
Because when the ace of the puck-stopping staff does theoretically return to active duty, a projected eight games from now beginning tonight against Dallas, the Flames will either be in the thick of the playoff chase, close enough to con themselves into believing they are or so far out of it that no amount of spin-doctoring will be able to convince even the most shameless Kool-Aid sippers.
In addressing the media mongrels Tuesday, the morning after a scruffy 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, Jay Feaster echoed his coach’s sentiments of urgency. The GM apologized for his voice, a bit raspy, complaining of a cold caught on the last road trip, but in truth he might’ve worn it thin hollering from his perch high above ice-level at the cart-load of scoring opportunities left begging Monday against the Wild.
“Of late,” he croaked, “the frustration is the inability to finish. It’s great that we’re getting the chances, it demonstrates that the system is one that leads to chances, but we have guys that need to start finishing.
“The bottom line is we don’t take any moral victories out of anything. We have to win games. And you’re right, 10 games wouldn’t be a lot in a normal season but we’re almost at the quarter-pole in this truncated season.”
As Feaster mentioned, the quarter-pole beckons, and the Flames find themselves already in the familiar territory of being forced to make up lost ground. On the plus side, Jiri Hudler’s been a great addition. Defenceman Dennis Wideman, too. Hartley’s peppy personal shows no signs (yet) of waning. Irving’s embraced a difficult challenge and
Feaster said Monday he’s satisfied with the chances his group is creating while, in general, keeping the opposition’s down. He praised their discipline (Calgary was the league’s least penalized team heading into the Minnesota muddle) and the power play.
“There are so many positives, but at the end of the day all those positives don’t mean anything when you’re below .500 and out of the playoff picture yet again.
“We recognize that time is short and we have to turn it around right now.”
Obviously, with a 3-4-3 team that has contested the majority of its games on home ice, the cons outweigh the pros.
The offensive pipeline has dried up, scoring only once in the past two starts. All niceties about adapting and conscientious two-way play aside, they need captain Jarome Iginla to kick out of idle. Which means they need him to lead, and to snipe. So much of this team’s identity still goes through him.
They also need Curtis Glencross to get back to being the cranky cuss, chippy and chirpy, he’s capable of when at his most effective. They need Michael Cammalleri to vault off the injury list tonight as the Michael Cammalleri of his last tour of duty here or circa that memorable Montreal playoff push, and not the unreasonable facsimile who struggled to even generate shots before being sidelined.
They need to go into a shootout with some sort of conviction (“We’re driving an eighteen-wheeler and it’s full of bricks,” sighed Hartley. “We need to show that we’re NHL guys and when we go into a shootout that we can and want to make the difference. Right now, we’re not”).
And they need to somehow muddle through these next two Kipper-less weeks, still in the hunt, and trust in the Magnificent Miikka to take it from there.
“From my perspective,” challenged Feaster, “the fact that the No. 1 goaltender is out, that oughta cause every guy in that room to raise their level that much higher. And they oughta look at a kid like Leland Irving and say ‘This guy’s busting his backside, giving us a chance to win every game. How about if we step up and do our part?’
“Again, that’s the collective ‘we. That’s every guy looking in the mirror. That’s what we expect and that’s what we want as a team.
“At the end of the day, two weeks from now we’re in the pack or we’ve fallen terribly behind.”
Too far down the mountain again to dream, after three years climbing, of once again planting their flag triumphantly in the playoff summit.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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