Scoreboard watching can mean different things to different teams at this crazy, unpredictable time of year. For some, it's just about getting into the playoffs. For the Vancouver Canucks, it was all about enhancing their playoff position.
The only Western Conference team even bothering to monitor the Eastern Conference playoff race these days, the Canucks' attention early on Thursday evening was diverted to Pittsburgh, where the Penguins were busy laying a 5-2 pounding on the New York Rangers, Vancouver's primary competition for the Presidents' Trophy.
Sadly for the Canucks, they failed to take advantage of that opportunity, losing 3-2 to the Calgary Flames on a game that was dishwater dull for 40 minutes, but livened up considerably in the third.
As a result, the Canucks now have given the St. Louis Blues a chance to win the overall Western Conference title, if the Blues happen to win out. St. Louis plays the Phoenix Coyotes Friday.
Vancouver also needs help to overtake the New York Rangers in the chase for Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Both teams have 109 points with one game remaining, but New York holds the first tie-breaker (most regulation and overtime wins – 47 compared to 42 for the Canucks).
"You want to win as many games as you can," said defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who returned to the lineup after missing four games with an undisclosed injury.
"More importantly, we wanted to go out, winning the season out and finishing on a high note. Tonight, it was a big game for us. We put everything into it. We wanted it, but we're not going to get too down on ourselves. We have one game left … to see what happens.
The defeat snapped Vancouver's seven-game winning streak and marked the first time all season that they lost in regulation after holding a two-period lead (31-0-2).
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said the team was aware of the Rangers' result, "but that shouldn't be a factor. We're a team that plays hard every night. We don't put a lot of focus on wins or losses. We put a focus on the way we play, and tonight, we didn't do enough to win. Our power play needs to score us a goal."
Calgary had a dreadful first period (only three shots), a mediocre second (only eight more), but upped the tempo in the third, scoring three consecutive goals – two by Mike Cammalleri – to take a 3-1 lead with 3:37 to play. But then Jannik Hansen drew the Canucks to within one, just 26 seconds later, setting the stage for a fabulous finish. But even with the Flames' Blake Comeau in the penalty box and goaltender Cory Schneider pulled for a sixth attacker, Vancouver couldn't tie the game.
"They shouldn't have been in the game in the third period," Hansen said. "We should have put it away earlier."
About the only thing that made it unique from a Calgary perspective was the NHL debut of Akim Aliu, who had been promoted from AHL Abbotsford the day before to replace the injured Alex Tanguay. Tanguay hurt his left wrist in a game against the Minnesota Wild the previous week and couldn't grip his stick properly. Rather than risk further injury in a meaningless game, the Flames shut him down for the rest of the season.
Aliu is from Nigeria, where Jarome Iginla's father, Elvis, was also born and played mostly on a line with Matt Stajan and Cammalleri, who was shifted back to left wing, replacing Tanguay. Aliu earned the second assist on Cammalleri's third-period tying goal.
"He was fun to play with," Cammalleri said. "He was very excited. We talked earlier today about the love for the game. You could just see in his body language how appreciative he was to be in tonight. I thought he played hard for us. It's great for him. He gets his first win and his first point in his first game. I'm happy for him."