Even the good teams in the NHL can't usually shake a single but lengthy bad stretch in an otherwise successful season while the lousiest of decrepit rosters can generally string together a single period of prosperity sandwiched amid their general mediocrity.
The riddle, of course, is to which group should we say the Calgary Flames belong?
Was that magical mid-November to early January simply a hiccup of success in another desultory season about to go bad?
Or was the third quarter mark of 8-10-2, symbolized by a mercurial, roller coaster stretch of win, loss, win, loss that left their infuriated/bedazzled fans emotionally exhausted, the real deal we can expect down the stretch?
You might have thought the Flames were already lower than a snake belly in a wagon rut on January 30 when, after leading 3-1 on home ice against a Hawks team that had lost 19 straight on the road, they blew a tire and an important two points in the standings, goaltender Roman Turek hooted off the ice by finger-pointing disgruntled fans, dragging his tail between his legs yet again.
Perhaps, however, this team couldn't possibly have been lower - or higher - than witnessing their healthy $4.5 million number one goaltender watching from the bench, thereby escaping the derision of the bleacher bums, while a badly injured backup, Jamie McLennan, hobbled into the net and pulling out an improbable but crucial 6-4 win over Anaheim.
But that's the way it went in the tortuous third quarter, one second up and the next thrown for a loop.
The Flames spasmodic third quarter gave every appearance of an emotionally and physically exhausted team crawling to the bliss of the All-Star break, the truth of that statement made all the more obvious when they won four straight with clear heads after the festivities had concluded.
After losing three in a row on an east coast road swing, however, and desperation again taking hold in the face of an advancing, killer schedule, who knows where these Flames might throw at us before this season is done.
Are they among the consistent best . . . . . or among the teasing worst?
WHAT'S WORKING - A hard one to pin down given this team could be defensive or offensive world beaters one night and invisible chokers the next. Only late in the quarter, after the All Star break, could you legitimately saying anything was working particularly well with any regularity, that being the welcome return of a stifling defensive game that reeled off four straight wins but was still reasonably present in three consecutive losses. It goes without saying this team will only make the playoffs if they're consistently giving the opposition two or fewer goals per game on less than 25 shots.
WHAT'S NOT WORKING - One of the more frequent comments you would hear about the Flames through the first half of the season was they were a team that always finished their checks and were physically punishing opponents. That's obviously a tough and wearing style to play, particularly in the face of catastrophic injuries on a team with marginal organizational depth to begin with. Eventually, the physical toll began to catch up to them and with it the willingness to pound the opposition into submission with enthusiasm. In order for the Flames to bring themselves back to the effectiveness they enjoyed in the second quarter, they need to rediscover their aggressive and physical forecheck game.
QUARTER DEFENSIVE MVP - With a healthy Turek caving under the pressure of hometown abuse, Jamie McLennan came off the bench and picked up three of four points against Anaheim and LA just before the All Star break, that in spite of a cracked sternum that would have felled a lesser locker room joker. When Turek was finally impressed back into service, and Kiprusoff came back on line from injury, the defensive ship seemed to have been righted. McLennan, maligned in many quarters, is on the last legs of an inglorious career but the de facto third stringer may have saved the season with his January and February.
QUARTER OFFENSIVE MVP - We'll go with the Sutter recommendation on this one and nominate McAmmond. With Craig Conroy, Stephane Yelle and Blair Betts all on the gimpy list, McAmmond moved to centre and provided yeoman service in helping keep Calgary afloat through a difficult period with eight goals and seven helpers in 20 games. Jarome Iginla would be the easy guy to peg; embarking on one of his patented tears that resulted in 15 goals, five assists and 20 points in the last 20 games.
WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO DO TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS? - The Flames are one of five teams vying for four playoff spots that have separated themselves from the pack beneath them, the nearest of the next group seven points in arrears of Calgary heading into action tonight. Flames, in spite of a tough March schedule, will need to gut it out and stay in that group until they hit an easier stretch to close out the season.
Then push one of the other four to the sidelines.
Somewhere along the way, Calgary's former wounded and still rattled brigade of Steve Reinprecht and Craig Conroy will need to make a bigger impact than we've seen to date. The return of the desperately missed Stephane Yelle, the man coach Sutter counts on to control the tempo of a game, will help them but the improbable Shean Donovan, already with a career season even if it ended today, has to steel himself for one more epic run.
But all of that is obvious and easily stated.
Less obvious is that the Flames could desperately use a final push from young players like Chuck Kobasew, Matthew Lombardi and Oleg Saprykin, the offensive depth in their lineup now being challenged by their youth and inexperience. The first two are likely finding out first hand that the competition level in the NHL ratchets up at various points as an NHL season progresses. Just as they adapt to one level, the playing field changes to something more desperate. The veterans have experience with this but newcomers, the weak, those lacking talent or drive, can be left wallowing, dragging their teammates down with them.
Finally, a return to the hard checking physical forechecking game which rattled opponents earlier on would be welcome if not imperative given the schedule of plus .500 teams awaiting them.
Are they physically up to the challenge after 61 games? They'd better be. Their defensive game relies upon it.