For the first 30-plus games of this National Hockey League season, the Calgary Flames were not a particularly good hockey club.
They blew leads. They took bad penalties. They were defensively unsound. Worst of all, they were also perennially unlucky – bounces often went against them, as if the hockey gods were smiting them for past transgressions.
It was due to such circumstances that when the team adjourned for their brief holiday hiatus, the players may have expected to find coal from jolly old Saint Nick in their stockings on Christmas morning. The team’s chances for a playoff spot seemed dull, at best, with the prognosticators at Sports Club Stats giving the Flames a 4.58% shot at the post-season before Christmas.
Proving the existence of Santa Claus or other supernatural magic creatures may have been statistically more likely than Calgary reaching the playoffs at that point. Things were grim.
Thus, it’s a bit of an eye-opener a scant six weeks later, as the Flames welcomed rookie Lance Bouma into the fold by letting him lead the team onto the ice for pre-game warm-up… and leaving him alone on the ice for a couple laps. Surely, these aren’t the guffawing antics of a team fighting for their hockey relevance.
Things have changed.
Heading into Christmas, the Flames were three games below .500 and roughly nine points (depending on games in hand) out of the playoffs. They enter Monday night action a single point out of a post-season berth. And a team once mired with inconsistency (and filled with players plagued by same) has managed to string together points in 16 of a possible 19 games – earning 28 of a possible 38 points.
All is not perfect in perfect in Mudville. The team’s cap situation isn’t great, particularly with a good deal of next year’s allotment already spoken for. Veteran centre Daymond Langkow isn’t expected to physically exert himself at all until at least late March, and a return to hockey is a long-shot bet at best. The team’s still on the wrong side of 30, age-wise, and carrying two extra defensemen – one of which is the 37-year-old Steve Staios. The Flames managed to get under the 23-man roster limit by waiving under-achieving winger Ales Kotalik and former captain Craig Conroy. Kotalik went down to the American Hockey League and Craig Conroy into the front office following his retirement (rather than follow Kotalik to the AHL).
But the two biggest indicators of how far this once fire-and-brimstone-grim team has come in a short time were on display over 36 hours this weekend. On Friday, Conroy announced his retirement. Rather than a morose affair featuring teary-eyed former teammates waxing poetic, it was a joyous affair. And on Saturday, rather than bringing an all-business approach to the first NHL appearance of Bouma- a rookie ostensibly taking Conroy’s roster spot during a crucial part of the season – the team pranked him.
The Calgary Flames are not a perfect hockey club. Their recent stretch of impressive play is probably some kind of cosmic correction – the hockey gods giving as many bounces as they took away in October, November and December. But for a club that was playing with the Sword of Damocles over their heads for much of the season, there will be another time to worry about how they stack up against the elite of the National Hockey League.
For now, they seem to be enjoying themselves.
Let’s see how long they can keep it up.