It was just one win, and it came at the expense of a team that was battered both physically and emotionally. But for the Calgary Flames, their 2-1 victory over Dallas on Thursday night still counted for the two points that put them back on top of the Northwest Division.
At least for one night.
While most fans are glued to the adventures of the teams at the hind end of each conference, to see which will be the last of eight to cross the finish line, they're missing the most compelling race in hockey: the battle for the Northwest, the only division where the title is truly up for grabs.
Of course, if the Flames had taken care of business, this thing would have been decided long ago.
Not to take credit away from the hard-charging Canucks, but the reality is that the Flames have spent the last two months squandering the 13-point lead they once held over Vancouver. With just five wins in their last 13, they're struggling like
No wonder the "C stands for Choke" gag is back in vogue.
Funks are one thing. Every team has them. It's the timing of this one that's leading to calls for the late-season canning of coach
Both men deserve their share of the brickbats, but the big defender makes for the easiest target. Coming into the season as a Norris favorite (no need to throw any SI.com pundits under the bus for that call), he's fallen miserably short of expectations. The physical play is still there -- not surprising, since that appears to be his favorite part of the game. But Phaneuf's inability to make good decisions with the puck has led to too many turnovers and derailed too many offensive sorties. Worse, his seemingly carefree positioning away from the puck has made him easy for opponents to exploit, a fact evidenced by his grisly minus-11 rating. In his third season, this big dog is all bark, no bite.
But Phaneuf is not the only Flame flickering to the finish. You know things are bad when there's excitement over
Injuries have played a factor in the slide.
The Canucks, meanwhile, continue to build momentum, Thursday night's shootout loss to the Ducks notwithstanding. They've thrived in the role of hunter, tracking down the Flames with ruthless efficiency.
Vancouver has been on a tear since the break: 14-4-2 in their last 20. While much of the credit is heaped on captain
Calgary simply looks like they're simply running out of feet to shoot.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that the Flames have been here before. Last season, Calgary won just six of its final 13 games to fall out of the division title hunt and nearly out of the top eight altogether. And while they played arguably their best hockey in that first round series against San Jose, these late-season slides open them up wide to criticism. At this point, they've got five games left to prove they're not too delicate mentally to live up to late-season pressure.
Always on the cusp of breaking through, the Flames have been first-round casualties three springs running. Stumbling into the tournament makes a fourth early exit all the more likely.
The Canucks don't need to win the division. It'd be nice, but they've earned their psychological edge heading into the postseason.
The big question is: with five games remaining, can the Flames find theirs?
When they were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week, the Coyotes set a particularly dubious mark: 21 consecutive seasons without a playoff series win. The franchise, which has yet to win a series since moving to Phoenix, last advanced to the second round in 1987 when the then-Winnipeg Jets were swept by Edmonton after they beat Calgary. The previous stretch of futility was set by the Rangers, who failed to win a series from 1951 to 1970.
The Jets/Coyotes have earned a berth in the postseason 16 times in their 30-year history, but have advanced just twice. See? It's not so bad to be an Islanders fan!
As embarrassing as that streak is to the franchise, there were pertinent signs of trouble this week. At a point in a lost season when youth should be served, the team's three most recent first-rounders are spending as much time in the press box as on the bench. You might be willing to write off the slumps of
Since suffering a concussion on Jan. 27, Mueller's been a shadow of the player who carried the Coyotes in the second half of last season. He has just one assist in his last 12 games, and hasn't scored since coming off the IR on Feb. 14. He's unlikely to reprise last spring's appearance with Team USA at the World Championships and it's probably just as well, both for the Yanks and his long-term health.
I know better. Really, I do. But sometimes I just can't help myself. . .
In a clever bid for free publicity, animal rights group PETA reacted to news that the Canadiens might be for sale by sending a letter to Montreal owner
They better hope Montreal's power play continues to click like it did Thrusday night against the Islanders. Last thing PETA wants is to see the Seal Pups beaten. . .
Tip o' the cap to reader