NHL realignment is coming and with it, the Calgary Flames will get a chance to play even more games in southern California, starting next year.
The Flames lost all three games they played in a 72-hour span in the soon-to-be extinct Pacific Division, dropping a 3-1 decision Monday night to the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
At the moment, the Flames and Kings look like teams on two different trajectories.
After a slow start, L.A. is 9-2 in its last 11, including a sweep of their back-to-back games against Calgary. The Flames, meanwhile, have now fallen to 15th place in the Western Conference standings, behind both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers. If the objective is to bottom out this season, then the events of the past three games will go a long way to meeting that goal.
"Definitely, we took a step in the wrong direction," said Flames' captain Jarome Iginla. "We have to go home and we have to win games, but this trip definitely put us a way's back."
Iginla was asked: Is there enough time to right the ship?
"Well, we're going to keep going and keep trying, but we've got to get better too," he answered. "We have to find ways to out-compete the other teams, to find ways to win. This was a close game today, the last goal into the empty net, but they found a way to win it. That's what we haven't been doing enough of lately."
Including Friday's 4-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the Flames were outscored 13-3 as they were swept away in California. Except for the first period against Anaheim and the third period last night, the Flames were generally outplayed in all aspects of the game. Defensively, their coverage broke down constantly. On offence, they generated few grade-A scoring chances against Kings netminder Jonathan Quick.
Both the Kings and the Ducks feature their share of heavy-hitting forwards, who like to lean hard on teams and generally wear them down. The Flames didn't push back all that strenuously, until the third period, when the gravity of their plight presumably sank in.
The Flames had billed Monday's game – their 24th of the season – as a must-win, given how the gap between themselves and eighth place was widening daily. It left coach Bob Hartley with a difficult call to make between the pipes – start the struggling Miikka Kiprusoff in the most important game of the season, or turn to back-up Joey MacDonald.
Hartley opted for MacDonald on the grounds that Kiprusoff had played three games in four nights coming off a month-long injury absence and needed a night off. The Kings scored on their second and fifth shots of the game against MacDonald – one from Dustin Brown, one from Jarret Stoll – going up 2-0 before the 10-minute mark. The Flames were a mostly lifeless bunch until the third, when the momentum shifted. Calgary failed to capitalize on a 27-second five-on-three power-play opportunity, largely because of an exceptional penalty-killing shift from Stoll, who blocked a shot on his wrist and then cleared the puck out of danger.
It proved to be a pivotal sequence because soon afterward, Mikael Backlund scored his fourth of the season to get the Flames to within one. On the play, Alex Tanguay pulled up just outside the Kings' blue line and dished off a pass to Backlund, coming with speed. Backlund backed off defenceman Alex Martinez and then slipped the puck between Quick's legs, ending his shutout attempt.
The Flames could get no closer however and Brown, with his second of the night, completed the Kings' scoring into the empty net.
"They were desperate for sure, especially in the second part of the game there," said Stoll. "We knew we were going to get a good push from them there in the third – and we got it. We just needed some big saves and a big kill there. It wasn't easy. It was just one of those games, there were not a lot of clean plays out there."
Currently, it appears as if it will take 54 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference. The Flames would need to go 16-8 in the second half in order to get to 54 – a tall order for a team that has scored just three goals in its last three games, a team searching for answers and not sure of where to look next. The Kings swept the season series from the Flames for the first time in 13 years.
Iginla wasn't sure what sort of reaction the Flames would get upon their return home, with the NHL trading deadline just over three weeks away – and speculation growing that the Flames ultimately will be sellers, if the losing continues.
"My preparation is, we travel home tomorrow and we play the next day," said Iginla. "I can understand why fans would be upset. We're upset we're in last place. It's unacceptable. Nobody will give up in this room. It's our responsibility to get ready to play the next one and get ready to win, but no, we understand Calgary Flames fans would be upset. They have a lot of passion and they should be (upset). We're not winning games and not winning them consistently enough."