Hope springs eternal in NHL playoff season, though hope frequently gets couched in boilerplate clichés as soon as a team falls behind 3-0 in a series, which is where the Calgary Flames found themselves Tuesday morning. Mere hours after a perplexing collapse in which they blew a 4-1 second-period lead and lost 5-4 in overtime to the Anaheim Ducks, the Flames reassembled at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Unlike the night before, when the scent of victory was in the air for most of the night, this gathering felt funereal. One-by-one, the players were ushered out of the dressing room, to speak about the possibilities of carving a small piece of NHL history with an epic comeback.
Only four times in the history of the NHL playoffs has a team overcome a three-game disadvantage to miraculously win a series. Nothing in the current edition of the Flames suggests they will be the fifth.
For starters, the level of goaltending required to win against the Ducks hasn't been there. Goaltender Brian Elliott may have been exceptional for the Flames in the second half of the regular season, but his last two performances have been subpar. In Game 2, he had troubles early – surrendering two goals early – and in Game 3, he gave up a momentum-changing flutter-ball to Shea Theodore in the final minute of the second period that gave the visitors life.
Had the Flames uneventfully played out the period, they would have carried a decisive three-goal lead into the third.
In 33 games this season, the Flames had a perfect record of securing the win when leading after two periods. They picked a bad time to see that streak come to a halt.
It was suggested at the start of the series that the Ducks were probably the worst possible matchup for the Flames, even more difficult an opponent than the Western Conference's leading team, the Chicago Blackhawks. The first week of the playoffs support that contention.
Anaheim finished the regular season on a 14-game point streak (11-0-3), becoming just the fifth team in league history to do so and the first since Pittsburgh finished the 1992-93 season with points in 18 consecutive games. From the end of their bye week until the conclusion of the regular season, the Ducks went 14-2-3 to catch and overtake the San Jose Sharks for first place in the Pacific Division. Calgary was decent down the stretch until it clinched a playoff spot and then collectively exhaled. The Flames haven't quite been the same team since.
"Honestly, I think they have great players, great individuals over there who, in key moments, step up and make plays," Flames' captain Mark Giordano said. "But in saying that, it's been a really close series. In our opinion, 3-0 is not the way it should be right now, but it is."
Giordano acknowledged the psychological difficulty in overcoming Monday's loss, considering the Flames were in control for the better part of two periods.
"It was a tough loss, but you can't dwell on it," Giordano said. "Today's a day where you have to refresh and regroup and get over it somehow. Collectively, we've got to look forward to the next game. There's a new opportunity. We've got to get a spark early and just play with no fear. There's nothing to lose, so you try to get a game and if you get a game, you go to the next one and try to do the same thing."
If there was one unexpected bright spot for the Flames, it was the play of centre Sam Bennett, who is finding that old playoff magic from two years ago.
Bennett, who was drafted as a centre, played mostly on the wing until this season, when the Flames put him back in the middle. It meant Bennett played down the depth chart most of a year punctuated by some long scoring droughts.
Bennett's mentor in junior hockey was former Flames' star Doug Gilmour – and there are similarities in the way they approach the game. Bennett will go into the hard areas in front of the net, which is where he scored Calgary's fourth goal Monday night. His most memorable moment came when he laid a hellacious open-ice check against Ducks' defenceman Kevin Bieksa, a popular villain in these parts from his days as a Canucks agitator.
Until they got jittery and let the game slip away, the Flames had mounted the necessary response Monday after playing two reasonably competitive games on the road in Anaheim, though they didn't win either. Now, however, the task seems nearly impossible – four wins in a row, two of which would have to come at the Honda Center, where they've lost 29 in a row. But that didn't prevent a bunch of players from saying all the right things Tuesday.
"We're going to do everything in our power to send a message and make them a little nervous over there," forward Matthew Tkachuk said.