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This is how playoff spots are finalized in the new NHL - with the Calgary Flames' players, huddled around a television set, in the player lounge at the Pengrowth Saddledome, watching two teams playing miles away, the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks, decide their fate.

The Flames had failed to do their part. Earlier Tuesday evening, they'd fallen 2-1 to the visiting San Jose Sharks in what everyone in the organization had described as a must-win situation. Mathematically, the only way that they could stay alive for another day was if Vancouver defeated Colorado, the team they were chasing down for a playoff spot.

Right around 10:38 MDT, the Avalanche's Matt Duchene scored against Roberto Luongo - and at that precise moment, it was all over for Calgary. A season that began with much hope and promise unravelled during a 12-game stretch in January when they won just once.

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In the end, the Flames dropped back-to-back games against the Western Conference leaders, San Jose and the Chicago Blackhawks, sealing their playoff fate.

Afterwards, Craig Conroy - one of their key contributors in mid-decade when the Flames looked like a team on the rise - expressed the disappointment that he and his teammates felt.

"Duchene scores, they win and it's over," said Conroy. "It's as simple as that. You can't say much more than that. We were hoping for a miracle and it didn't happen."

In recent days, Conroy has vehemently come to the defence of his close friend, Flames' captain Jarome Iginla, whose recent scoring slump (one goal in 14 days) mirrored the team's season-long inability to score. Rene Bourque scored the only goal for Calgary last night against the Sharks on a third-period power play, the 200th goal scored by the Flames all season, dead last in the Western Conference.

In the first month, Calgary received secondary scoring throughout its line-up, one reason for its blazing-fast start. When that dried up, they could never quite get the offence back on track.

"That nine games we lost in a row was the turning point of the season," said Conroy. "You can't lose three or four in a row and we lost nine, so …

"We knew going into the season, we lost Bert (Todd Bertuzzi) and Cammi (Mike Cammelleri), who was a 40-goal scorer. You try to do it by committee, but a lot of nights, we couldn't score. Miikka (Kiprusoff, the Flames' goaltender), I feel bad for him. He had one of his best seasons. For us not to be able to give him two or three goals …

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"When we were scoring three or four goals at the start of the year, it wasn't even close. We were winning all the games. Then we just went dry. There was a lot of pressure on Jarome. We just couldn't find ways to score. The power play wasn't clicking like it was at the start of the year. I don't know why, it just didn't happen."

General manager Darryl Sutter tried to address the scoring shortfall by making a series of mid-season trades that brought in, among others, Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan from Toronto and Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins from the New York Rangers. Collectively, that quartet accounted for only 11 goals in 86 games and none managed more than three apiece.

Iginla said "it feels like a failure - and it was.

"First of all, our goal was to get to the playoffs. That's not an easy accomplishment. Every year, there are good teams that are out well over .500. Then it's to go far in the playoffs and win but obviously, you can't do that if you don't get in.

"We all feel as if (we failed), although Kipper shouldn't. He had his best season since winning the Vezina. Unfortunately, in front of him, we couldn't get enough offence. I didn't produce what I was hoping to; and a lot of us are feeling that way. We needed to find more goals in close games.

"Look at tonight. We were good for one. It definitely feels tough and it gets even tougher watching the other teams play."

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Coach Brent Sutter wasn't prepared to discuss what went wrong, noting that the team still had two games remaining in the regular season, and that it wasn't the appropriate time to conduct the obligatory post-mortems.

Those will happen in due time, and it is expected that the organization will get a top-to-bottom evaluation from an ownership group that has largely given the top brass, president Ken King and general manager Darryl Sutter, carte blanche to run the operation as they saw fit.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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