The Calgary Flames hoped there would be more stretches this season like the three-game win streak they're currently riding after a critical come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.
The Flames, after all, are celebrating the 30th year since the NHL franchise moved to Calgary from Atlanta. General manager Darryl Sutter brought home his brother Brent from New Jersey last summer to lead the Flames to bigger and better deeds.
But the season was sliding downhill fast. After a nine-game losing streak in January, Sutter the GM blew up the team and brought in nine new faces with five different transactions, if you include the promotion of 20-year-old centre Mikael Backlund from the minors.
The heat is on the Flames. So much so that there has been speculation around the league that this is a do-or-die season for the Sutter the GM. In all the desperate moves he has made the past 12 months, he has put the Flames' long-term future in peril.
Against the Red Wings, Backlund was a healthy scratch. The youngest player they dressed was 26-year-old defenceman Ian White. Yet, the Flames don’t have a first or second-round draft pick for the 2010 NHL entry draft and possibly no third-round selection, either.
They surrendered a conditional third round pick in the trade with the Edmonton Oilers for veteran defenceman Steve Staios. Calgary, however, has the option to give up that selection either this June or in 2011, when the Flames also don’t have their second-round choice.
Since Sutter the GM was also the coach and steered the Flames to the 2003-04 Stanley Cup final, there have been four consecutive playoff berths but no advancement past the first round. The lack of post-season success has been reminiscent of when the Flames won the 1988-89 Stanley Cup and then made the playoffs only six times in the next 14 years and never won a series.
"As a player you have to look at the fact that when you’re not winning as a team, changes are going to be made," Flames veteran defenceman Robyn Regehr said after his team's 4-2 win in Motown. "Whether the changes will be minor or major, that's up to management. At our level, it’s all about winning and we weren't winning."
The recent winning streak has pushed the Flames into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings, one point up on the Red Wings with 16 games remaining. The two clubs clash in a rematch at the Pengrowth Saddledome on March 15.
It took a handful of games before the Flames began to click. After all, more than one-third of the roster was overhauled when Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, prospect Keith Aulie, Olli Jokinen, Brandon Prust, Dustin Boyd and Aaron Johnson were shipped out in deals that brought in Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Christopher Higgins, Ales Kotalik, Staios and Vesa Toskala.
"The guys that came in were a unique group in the sense that they were some leaders that came in," Brent Sutter said. "They are players that understand the situation and they've been in the situation before.
"But we also have to credit the group that was already here. They got on board with the changes. They addressed it and took it from there … We were in no situation that we could sit around and hash it out. We had to make it work right away."
The Flames are by no means out of the woods, but at least the spirit of the players has turned in the right direction. When friends and long-time teammates are moved out, it's not easy. Flames captain Jarome Iginla admitted it wasn't easy to see his buddies Phaneuf and Boyd no longer with him in Calgary.
"We were a little stunned there," Iginla said. "We were flat for a few games. There also was the [trade] deadline to worry about. But it feels like it’s coming. It didn’t feel that it came together that quickly. It definitely was different to look around and see some of your friends gone. It was hard to see friends that were your teammates for so long leaving.
"Fortunately, the guys coming in have had great attitudes and fit right in. [Management] must have done their homework because the guys who have come in have not complained about anything like ice time or the roles they’ve been asked to play."
Brent Sutter remarked that fostering on-ice chemistry has been a non-issue. But there was a dry spell in early February when the Flames lost four of five and scored only seven times in those five games.
"Sometimes it does take some time to get some chemistry," Regehr said. "You hope there is instant chemistry, but that doesn't always happen. Guys like to play certain ways and they have their tendencies. So they to come in and get used to the way we want to play.
"You also have to get used to another. For example, a guy like Jarome likes to be in the slot in certain areas and his linemates have to know where to find him.
"It wasn’t just tough for the new guys, it was tough for all of us. We were really having trouble scoring goals. We were getting chances, we were getting lots of shots. But we were making mistakes that cost us. It was tough to take. But now we've been able to capitalize on our chances a bit more and we’ve cleaned up some of those mistakes."
The Flames two best players, netminder Miikka Kiprusoff and Iginla, didn't make any mistakes against the Red Wings.
Calgary forward Daymond Langkow put the Flames in front early in the second period, but the Red Wings held a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes on goals from Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom, who scored on the power play. Detroit also held a 26-17 advantage in shots on goal. But Kiprusoff held his teammates in there and gave them a chance.
Iginla had not scored in his previous 19 regular season games against Detroit. But he snuck in a rebound off a backhand five minutes and 45 seconds into the third period.
Ninety-one seconds later, Iginla found a loose puck in front of Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard. This time his shot attempt deflected off the shin pad of linemate Rene Bourque for the game-winner. Higgins added an empty netter in the final minute.
The Flames outshot Detroit 32-30.