That couldn’t have been easy.
Less than a half hour before puck drop on the Flames’ final Battle of Alberta, Cole Caufield’s first NHL goal plunged yet another stake into the heart of Calgary’s playoff chances.
The rookie’s overtime goal gave the Habs wins on consecutive nights to put Montreal up eight points on Calgary, closing the door on any semblance of hope remaining for the Flames.
A loss by the Flames three hours later confirmed what many believed to be true when Calgary lost their sixth to Ottawa or their final matchup against Montreal: they’re finished.
Asked after Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Oilers if they found out about Montreal’s win before the game, the Flames lone goal scorer said it was news to him.
“Found out from you right now,” Johnny Gaudreau said.
You can bet he was in the minority.
Either way, the Flames spent the opening ten minutes chasing Connor McDavid and the Oilers unsuccessfully, as the NHL’s leading scorer celebrated his 400th game by picking up two of his three points on the night a mere seven minutes in.
The first came on a power play slapper made possible by a Juuso Valimaki penalty that drew significant criticism from coach Darryl Sutter afterwards.
The second came minutes later when Ethan Bear converted a McDavid pass.
“When you get down two it’s tough in this building,” Sutter said.
“You try and get through the first four of five minutes and keep pace with them, but you took that penalty right up the gut – that’s a bad hooking penalty – you know they’re going to come with a little more jump and you give them a power play early, they’re going to take advantage of it and they did.”
At a time when the Flames needed desperately to open the game well, they struggled to keep up, outshot 7-1 to start.
“We probably gave up ten scoring chances in the first ten minutes,” said Christopher Tanev, whose club lost six of ten to the Oilers this year.
“Probably should have been five or six nothing if Marky [Jacob Markstrom] didn’t play so well. He gave us a chance to win. Obviously we didn’t get the job done.”
Give this Flames team credit for at least this much – they didn’t give up.
Throughout their fruitless stretch run, the one thing no one can question is the work ethic that dogged them earlier in the season, prompting the coaching change.
No one could have blamed frustrated Flames fans on Saturday for changing the channel early in what looked to be another one of those McDavid-led routs that finish with the Flames down by a half dozen.
But they found a way to stop the bleeding and make a game of it.
Gaudreau’s rebound off a Matthew Tkachuk shot midway through the second closed the gap to 2-1 and led to a tense finish in which Mike Smith stood his ground until the Oilers scored twice with the Flames’ goalie pulled.
A crossbar hit by Gaudreau earlier in the period might have flipped the script in a season full of could’ves and should’ves.
With six games left, the hill is too steep to climb for a team that simply isn’t good enough.
The players had little to say after the game, as not much can be said anymore anyway.
“We lost the game so it really doesn’t matter to be honest,” said Tanev when asked about his team doing well to battle back in tough circumstances.
“We weren’t ready at the start and it cost us. Obviously we’re disappointed in how we didn’t get the job done tonight.”