CALGARY — On Thursday night, the Calgary Flames embraced the noise surrounding them for the first time all week.
The noise was deafening roars of joy from those in attendance at the Scotiabank Saddledome as the Flames beat a tired, Western Conference-leading Vancouver Canucks squad in a game described as the best they’ve played all season. Flames fans watched as the team’s youth tried to make a difference and as the goaltending rose to the task. But they saved their voice for top-line players Elias Lindholm and Jonathan Huberdeau, who snapped a point and a goal drought, respectively.
At the end of the game, the Flames hung around centre ice and saluted those passionate fans, starved for any sort of good news about their season.
“It felt good,” Huberdeau said. “It has been a while. I think it was good to finally get a goal and a big win for us.
“It’s nice to get support from the crowd. They’ve been patient. It’s nice, obviously, but hopefully that can just get me going.”
It wasn’t trade talk. Nor was it criticism of underperforming players. Nor was it talk of a rebuild, or retool, with soon-to-be unrestricted free agents hanging in the balance. Those questions persist, but the Flames did their best to cast them to the side.
“At the end of the day, it is a business,” Flames forward Blake Coleman told The Athletic on Friday. “Guys have got to take care of themselves and their families. But, ultimately, we let it be too much of a distraction early on. I think we’ve had enough meetings where we’re just going to go play hockey. At the end of the day, winning shuts a lot of people up. Takes away a lot of that noise.”
It took the Flames around 11 games to get “sick of losing” and “sick of hearing about” losing.
A six-game losing streak to start the year has since been followed with points in five of their last six games and a 4-1-1 record in their last six games. The team needed younger players to make an impact and Calgary has gotten good contributions from Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil along the way.
Now that the players feel they’re finding their groove, did Flames fans and media overreact about this team?
“No, you guys don’t overreact. Come on,” Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“We’re just playing a totally different game,” Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin said. “We’re playing a lot faster. We’re playing more together as a unit on the ice. That’s what’s giving us success right now. We’ve had those losses, we’re winning now. But what’s more important is that we’re playing the right way and we’re heading in the right direction.”
It’s already a far cry from last weekend when Nikita Zadorov’s trade request and tweets from his agent Dan Milstein were grabbing headlines. On Tuesday, Pierre LeBrun reported that the team was willing to listen to offers for its pending UFAs. So even as the Flames emerged later that night with a win in Montreal, Nazem Kadri was asked back in Calgary about his future if the Flames embarked on a rebuild.
The truth is, even if the Flames continue to feel better about themselves, those questions about their future will persist. Being as good as they’ve been in their last six games is promising, but they still haven’t strung together three wins in a row this season. A win on Saturday over the New York Islanders would give them that distinction, but they’d still be outside a playoff spot. And that’s with days to go until American Thanksgiving, the marker that acts as a barometer that indicates if teams will be playoff-bound.
If (and it’s a big *if*) the Flames continue to win games and pick up points, is that enough to encourage them to remain competitive? Is Hanifin going to rush into Craig Conroy’s office with a pen to sign a new contract? What about Lindholm, or even Chris Tanev — as fans hold their breath over his trade value any time he gets hurt? How does the Flames’ performance, if it continues, affect Conroy’s strategy and thinking?
Conroy intended on being competitive this season. But what will it take for his team to officially change course? Or will they feel that just trading for younger players, and perhaps trading for a player who can play with Huberdeau, is sufficient?
The Flames’ next 18 games are not lining up to be particularly easy. They will play Dallas, Colorado and Vegas at least twice each. Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and New Jersey are also in that stretch. The Canucks will also want their pound of flesh back, too. Finally, the Los Angeles Kings are the last team the Flames will face before Christmas.
Depending on how the team performs, those 18 games could also cloud its future when it comes to the handling of their UFAs, especially if the Flames show their mettle against the best teams of that bunch. Conroy’s wait-and-see approach got him through the summer and led to Mikael Backlund re-signing and before the team’s poor start, it was trending toward Hanifin staying, too.
The next question is how long Conroy is willing to wait, and if it’ll be until March 8 — the day of the NHL trade deadline.
Until then, the Flames have time to dictate their own fate while trying to continue to block out external chatter about their future. Flames defenceman MacKenzie Weegar seems to think they’ve been doing a good job of that so far.
“The leadership group, answering to the media, we’ve done a great job of just blocking it all out and just focusing on ourselves,” Weegar said. “All that stuff will sort itself out. For now, we’ll just focus on the Islanders and that’s all we can do.”
(Top photo of Dillon Dube and MacKenzie Weegar: Sergei Belski / USA TODAY)