Whatever flickering playoff hopes the Calgary Flames may have entertained before Wednesday night went up in a puff of smoke during their latest must-win game of the NHL season – which, incidentally, they lost.
Calgary surrendered a goal to defenceman Willie Mitchell 5:30 into the opening period and never recovered from that bad beginning, falling 3-0 to the Los Angeles Kings. The defeat, in regulation, was crushing because Calgary began the day 11th place in the Western Conference standings, but in a position to leapfrog the ninth-place Kings with a victory. Instead, L.A. earned the two points, pushed three ahead in the standings and also holds a game in hand.
It didn't help matters either that the Dallas Stars went into Edmonton and won as well, moving four points ahead of Calgary in the playoff race and into first place in the Pacific Division.
The Flames have four games remaining and even if they won them all in regulation, they can only max out at 93 points – likely not be enough to qualify for playoffs in 2012 anyway.
With two other playoff contenders, the San Jose Sharks and the Colorado Avalanche both losing, the results caused the usual daily seismic shift in the standings. Dallas jumped from seventh to third; L.A. from ninth to seventh. San Jose dropped from three to eight. The idle Phoenix Coyotes fell one spot to ninth, while Colorado and Calgary stayed at 10 and 11 and remain the two longest shots technically still alive in the playoff hunt.
"It just wasn't the game you expected your team to play at this point of the season, given the magnitude of the game," said a disappointed Brent Sutter, the Flames' coach.
"They were just the better hockey team, plain and simple."
Los Angeles was full measure for the victory, outplaying Calgary in every facet of the game. The Kings are a maddeningly perplexing squad, No. 2 in the NHL defensively, but a team that struggles mightily to score, despite some decent offensive talent. The Kings have been shut out 10 times already this season, twice in the three previous games, but received a strong game from their No. 1 line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, who have been doing most of the heavy lifting offensively for L.A. of late. Williams provided the screen on both Kings' goals, the second coming 4:22 into the middle period when Brown and Kopitar expertly executed a give-and-go in the Flames' zone, Brown with acres of room to tee up a shot that he blew past goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Williams iced it with an empty netter with 1:09 to play.
"We didn't really have an answer with how to break their pressure and play in their end a little more," said Flames' forward Lee Stempniak. "That was the difference in the game."
That and the play of Kiprusoff's opposite number in the Kings' goal, Jonathan Quick, recorded his ninth shutout of the season, breaking a club record previously held by Rogatien Vachon (1976-77). But Quick had a relatively easy night of it, facing just 19 shots, as the Kings played a strong defensive game in front of him.
"Not to say it in a bad way, but I think it was only a matter of time because of how the game's going, and how defensive-minded it is, and how goals are so hard to come by now," said Quick. "At the end of the day, it's two points and that's all that matters right now."
The Kings have only five regulation losses after scoring the game's first goal, which made Mitchell's early tally so significant. Mitchell is a former member of the Vancouver Canucks, a prankster of the first order, and a perennial thorn in Calgary's side.
Once, years ago, when Mike Keenan was still coaching the Flames, he accused him of using an illegal too-long stick. For the warm-up that day, Mitchell sawed off a second shaft; attached the two together, and went on the ice with a stick roughly the length of your average telephone pole. Mitchell generally uses that stick to defend, not attack, but his fifth goal of the season – a long point shot originally credited to Williams, who had position inside Calgary defenceman Chris Butler – eluded Kiprusoff and appeared to relax what has in recent days been a tightly wound Kings' team.
"They did a good job of hanging onto pucks in our end," said Stempniak. "They didn't throw much away. If they got it, they just spun off guys and tried to play a possession game – and we didn't counter a lot."
By the middle of the second period, there were scattered boos that greeted the Flames half-a-dozen moments in the game. Once, in the third, a Bronx cheer arose to mark one of the measly four shots that Calgary managed on Quick.
For his part, forward Michael Cammalleri suggested the fans were well within their rights to boo.
"Fans of the game are passionate about the game and they want to see playoff hockey," said Cammalleri. "Trust me, the support here is fantastic. It was obviously a disappointing night for everybody. Yeah, there were some boos. That was them expressing their displeasure. They wanted to see a hard-fought game. They wanted to see a team that was going to the playoffs.
"I'm not saying we're out, because we still have games left, but … it doesn't bother me. I'm a fan of sports and I can relate to those feelings."