The Vancouver Canucks are on their biggest winning streak of the season, booking a sixth victory Saturday night against the soon-to-be-golfing (again) Calgary Flames.
Vancouver, with a 3-2 win in overtime, stays right in the fray for the Presidents' Trophy and retakes the No. 1 position in the Western Conference. While some might say the trophy counts for little - winners have won a third of the past dozen cups - few would turn down home-ice advantage through the spring. Vancouver now has 107 points, tied with the New York Rangers. St. Louis has 106 points. The Canucks and Blues have three games left, New York four.
The Flames, with little left to play for, having only a microscopic statistical chance to make the playoffs, managed to scrap back from a 1-0 deficit to go up 2-1. But Vancouver defenceman Marc-Andre Gragnani tied it up in midway through the third, his first goal since joining the club at the trade deadline.
The winner came with a minute left in overtime, Andrew Ebbett, in his first game since breaking his collarbone Jan. 7.
The loss officially eliminates the Flames from the postseason, the third consecutive year Calgary has failed to make the grade for springtime hockey. A reckoning is coming for Calgary, the team knows.
"Coming into today, we knew our chances were slim but, as a player, you never want to give up hope," said Flames defenceman Mark Giordano after the game.
"You never want to believe that the answers aren't in the room. It's tough, because at times we've shown we can be a really good hockey team, and be a team that battles with good teams, and is right there. But at times we haven't."
For Vancouver, another W - yet the question of goal scoring remains. The Canucks seemed to have trouble on a goaltender who hasn't scored a win in the NHL in more than a year.
In an extended Vancouver goal drought - the Canucks have scored just 16 in the past eight games before Calgary - names making the score sheet have been players not normally noted for their offensive prowess, the likes of Gragnani.
It was the same Saturday night on the opening score. Alex Edler carried the puck up the ice and tapped a light bounce pass off the boards to Henrik Sedin, who moved down the right wing. In the offensive zone, Sedin floated a soft backhand to the slot, where Maxim Lapierre handled the puck well, catching the pass with his left skate blade, bringing down his right knee and driving the puck between the legs of Calgary's Henrik Karlsson. It was Lapierre's second-straight game with a goal and just his eighth of the year.
In Karlsson, Vancouver faced a goaltender who has barely played in the NHL, a 6-foot-6 Swede. The 28-year-old on Saturday played in only his 25th NHL game and had not booked a win since January, 2011. Yet Vancouver hardly found it easy to capitalize on Karlsson's inexperience.
And Karlsson had some luck, too.
In the final seconds of the first period, on a power play, Vancouver defenceman Dan Hamhuis rifled a slapshot that hit the right post, deflected at precisely 90 degrees and flew along the goalline until it struck the other post and pinged out, away from the net.
Chris Higgins - who had four goals in four games before Calgary - tried to keep up his tear on Saturday, leading the Canucks in shots with six after two periods. Midway the third, Higgins had another great look in the slot but his shot was stopped by Karlsson.
Roberto Luongo was supposed to start Friday night against Dallas but pulled himself at the last moment, because of a sore neck. He played relatively well on Saturday but on both Calgary goals didn't look especially amazing. The Olli Jokinen power-play goal that tied the game in the second was a half-whiff on a one-timer off a Jarome Iginla pass- but the shot managed to get by Luongo's glove side. In the third, Mike Cammalleri boomed a slapper from near the blue line that Luongo couldn't get to, the puck driving through low, glove side. "When you're at the top of the league other teams gun for you, they play you as hard as they can every night," said Luongo after the game. "We're a target."
The biggest absence in recent days as the Canucks struggle to score is the concussed Daniel Sedin (who was spotted Saturday at the arena and his brother says he is doing much better, suggesting the team's hope to have him back for the playoffs is one fans' can lean on).
But another gaping hole on the score sheet has been the Ryan Kesler-led second line. The centre - nominated for the Selke for three consecutive seasons, winning last year - had just one assist in the seven games before the Flames. David Booth, a linemate from boyhood in Michigan, didn't cinch a single point in that seven game span.
Against Calgary on Saturday night, the second line failed to bring much of a spark, save for a scrappy shift in the second period that inspired the crowd to bellow a loud "Go Canucks Go." Booth and Kesler had no points, again, and through two periods hadn't registered a single shot.
Booth, while sometimes exciting, and often hard-driving, has not produced a whole lot this season for the Canucks. He has barely managed a point every other game, with 28 in 52 games before Calgary. He's nowhere near the results that saw him score 31 goals and 60 points in Florida in 2008-09, before he battled two concussions.
If the Canucks are to power deep into the spring, the second line will have to come alive. Perhaps Booth and Kesler miss Chris Higgins, the three together comprising the American Express line, but given Higgins' great work this month on the third line with Samme Pahlsson and Jannik Hansen, Booth and Kesler need to figure out how to click with the likes of Mason Raymond.
For Booth and Kesler, two numbers do suggest they're close. Booth has a shooting percentage of 11.6 per cent this season, close to the 12.6 he registered to score 31 goals three years ago. And while Kesler's production is down, having covered from hip surgery early this season, he's plus-minus is +13, easily the second best of his career, though it's not going to get him a fourth Selke nod. (He was +24 last season.)
Saturday night ended the busiest March Calgary has ever had. The team played 17 games in the month, the most the squad has ever played in a single month.
Vancouver has three games left to play: Tuesday at home against Anaheim, Thursday in Calgary, and next Saturday back at home against Edmonton.
If Vancouver is to claim its successive Presidents' Trophy, it will need to win outright. New York looks best if there is a tie, having 46 wins in regulation and overtime, compared with 44 for St. Louis and just 41 for Vancouver. The last team to finish first in the league twice in a row is the Detroit Red Wings, who probably get some sort of slight asterisk since the seasons were 2003-04, and 2005-06, the lost lockout year in between. The Dallas Stars did in 1997-98, and 1998-99. Of those four Presidents' Trophy, only produced a champion, the Stars in 1999.
What went wrong in Calgary this season? The dissections will be deep, and many, but one of the simplest measures states the plain truth. Far too many goals against, and not enough goals for. Arriving in Vancouver, Calgary had 192 for and 219 against. The -27 differential ranks Calgary No 25 in the league, ahead of just five other teams. Lack of goals is what killed the Flames in the latter half of March and while the Flames seemed close, felt close, to making the post-season, the final numbers don't look good.
Calgary's four meetings with Vancouver before Saturday night are a perfect example of how the Flames just haven't been able to put goals in, outscored by Vancouver 13-7 and blanked by the Canucks penalty kill on 16 power plays.
The Flames end yet another season at an ever deteriorating crossroads. It is the third consecutive playoff miss for Calgary, after making the postseason four years after the lockout (though losing in the first round each time). What of Jarome Iginla? What of coach Brent Sutter (whose contract is expiring)? There will be no shortage of questions, and the answers could see a club whose off-season overhaul is considerable.