The Calgary Flames' season was hanging by a thread when they faced the Kings at Staples Center on Dec. 22. After a strong start, the Flames had fallen into an 0-7-1 slump, the kind of frustration that challenges players' character, belief and patience.
Then three points behind the Kings in the West, the Flames could have fallen apart. Instead, led by team captain Mark Giordano and an energetic corps of forwards, they stuck together and rallied for a 4-3 overtime victory, changing the course of their season. The Flames led the Kings for the final wild card playoff spot before the teams met again Monday and Calgary stayed ahead by rallying for a 2-1 overtime victory.
"The important part was even though we went through that big losing streak we felt we were playing the right way, doing the right things. We were losing a lot of games by a goal and it came around," said Giordano, a strong Norris Trophy (top defenseman) candidate.
"We felt like our game wasn't too far off. We got a big win the last time we were here and it kind of helped us get back on our feet and we've had some big wins since then."
Management had enough faith in Coach Bob Hartley to extend his contract during that slump. He said his players' response to adversity confirmed what he already knew: that they had enough resolve to match the talent of players like dynamic rookie winger Johnny Gaudreau — who has applied for a patent and trademark of his nickname "Johnny Hockey" — and clutch scorer Sean Monahan, who last week became the youngest NHL player to score four overtime goals, at age 20 years 89 days.
"It was a test. It was a major speed bump in the road but we got back," said Hartley, who guided Colorado to the Stanley Cup in 2001. "We can't forget. ... It's bottom-low and you have to find a way and we did, and that's a credit to our players."
Forward Joe Colborne, like his teammates, credited Giordano for the turnaround.
"He's the backbone of this team. I can't speak highly enough of the effect he has on our team," Colborne said. "He's the hardest worker off the ice, hardest worker in games, hardest worker in practice. And it really stems from there. It's infectious."
Although what they've done so far is impressive, they haven't achieved anything yet. The Flames haven't made the playoffs since the 2008-09 season and haven't won a playoff series since 2003-04, when they lost a seven-game Stanley Cup Final under current Kings Coach Darryl Sutter.
Still, waking up Sunday to find themselves in playoff position gave them a lift.
"It's good to know that you're in the hunt, but it's so far in the distance," Colborne said. "If you don't play for a couple days you feel like all of a sudden you lose all the ground you just worked so hard to gain. As competitive as the West is and as strong as the West is, it's going to be like this all the way down the stretch."
Interim a long term for Lamoriello
When Lou Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils' president and general manager, fired Peter DeBoer as coach Dec. 26 and appointed himself to the position along with Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, no one expected him to stay for long.
Edmonton General Manager Craig MacTavish, who took on the Oilers' interim coaching duties this season, spent only five games behind the bench before handing the keys to Coach Todd Nelson. But on Monday, the Devils' three-headed coaching system reached its 11th game, with no end in sight. They were 4-5-1 in the first 10 games.
Lamoriello, the oldest current NHL coach at 72, said he benefits from watching his team at close range.
"What you can do is see the interaction and you can see the competitiveness and different expressions and different things that go on in the game that you don't see upstairs," he said.
Most of it hasn't been pretty. The Devils ranked 28th in goals per game through Sunday and their leading scorer, 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr, ranked 133rd in the NHL through Sunday's games with nine goals and 25 points.
Lamoriello got the Devils in this hole to a large extent and seems to feel obligated to get them out. Asked last week how long he intends to stay, he was terse: "I don't know."
From any vantage point, the Devils are giving him plenty to study and fix.
The Arizona Coyotes' trade of goaltender Devan Dubnyk to the Minnesota Wild last week for a third-round draft pick signaled the start of a makeover for a team that has lost the scrappiness that was its strongest asset. General Manager Don Maloney has some assets to deal, including potential free agents Antoine Vermette, Martin Erat and Zbynek Michalek, and many decisions to make before the March 2 trade deadline. Dubnyk shut out the Buffalo Sabres in his Minnesota debut. ... The Nashville Predators will have a tough time maintaining their excellence without goalie Pekka Rinne, who will be sidelined for three to five weeks because of a sprained knee. They're 1-1 so far.
The future of Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen remains in doubt. Tests found he still had blood clots in his legs after clots in his lungs had dissolved. ... By signing defenseman Marc Staal to a six-year, $34.2-million contract, the New York Rangers secured their core long-term. That includes defensemen Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers probably overpaid Staal but stability can be worth it.