CALGARY — Darryl Sutter has spent the better part of the week reminding his players they haven’t made the playoffs just yet.
However, playoff-style hockey is here.
They better get used to it.
Much like their loss two nights earlier to the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames found themselves struggling to generate offence in a tight game in which the rink seemed smaller.
This time it was an LA Kings neutral zone trap that did well to stymie the Flames most of the evening in a game ultimately decided in a shootout.
For a Calgary club that hadn’t lost two games in a row for more than two months, a 3-2 loss may serve as a wakeup call of sorts that the way this team played to surge to the top of the Pacific Division needs to be improved upon.
The attention to detail is more important, and execution is paramount to success.
Intensity and desperation need to be ramped up.
“There’s a gradual incline in the state of play, and the level of play, from the first game of the year in the NHL to the last one,” said veteran Erik Gudbranson, who knows a thing or two about intensity.
“It’s a constant incline from a number of teams. They become a lot more emotional this time of year.
“It’s desperate times for a lot of teams, and desperate times for us. We’ve got to be the more desperate team every night.”
Three years ago the Flames found it hard to manufacture desperation over the final 15 games, as they were able to cruise to the Western Conference title.
They were promptly trounced in the playoffs.
Limping to the finish won’t be an option under Sutter.
This team is too smart, skilled and experienced to do that again.
Despite what is now a five-point cushion and games in hand, the Flames were reminded by a scrappy, injury-depleted Kings team on Thursday that things get harder and harder this time of year.
“They play a good 1-3-1 game in the neutral zone and kind of aggravates teams at times,” said Johnny Gaudreau, whose bread-and-butter zone entries were turned back all night long.
“You find yourself turning the puck over a lot of the time when you’re trying to go through a neutral zone like that.
“That’s exactly what they did in the second. We turned the puck over, they scored and made it 1-0.”
It was a Gaudreau dump-in, as he headed to the bench, that Anze Kopitar batted out of the air and transitioned up ice quickly for Alex Iafallo to finish while the Flames scrambled to catch up on the play.
It gave the Kings a 1-0 lead heading into the third period against a host club that sits last in the NHL with just one win when trailing after two (they’re now 1-12-2).
The positives revolve around a third period comeback kick-started by an early power play goal by Gaudreau, that was followed by a Gudbranson point shot through the Flames’ fourth-line traffic that had them up 2-1 with six minutes left.
Alas, Mikael Backlund lost his man in front two minutes later, allowing Viktor Arvidsson to bury a centring pass to send it to overtime.
It was there Jacob Markstrom made all six saves in an extra frame in which the Flames had to kill off an Elias Lindholm penalty.
It served to emphasize the fact the netminder deserves credit for stealing a point.
Lias Andersson beat Markstrom through the legs to open the shootout in which Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Gaudreau came up empty.
“They won the shootout,” shrugged Sutter, whose club played without Oliver Kylington for the last half of the third period after he took a high stick and crashed face-first into the boards.
“I thought we fought back. Johnny’s power play goal is a big goal and big kill in overtime.
“I thought we were sluggish at the start, particularly faceoffs.”
The Flames got better as the night went on, but weren’t good enough to stop the momentum of a second-place Kings club that inched to within five of Calgary despite playing one night earlier in Edmonton.
“The job is not done by any stretch of the imagination,” said Gudbranson, whose club was outshot 32-28.
“We have a number in our head we need to get to to give ourselves that playoff berth, and we haven’t got there yet. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”