It was a good news / bad news quarter for the Calgary Flames.
Bad in that they fell considerably from their second quarter, casting some doubt on their playoff futures and causing widespread tension for Calgarians and hockey fans a like.
Good in that they are in very good shape if this is as bad as it gets.
Time will tell.
The twenty game segment that marked the third quarter of the 2003-04 Calgary Flames NHL schedule featured an uninspiring record of 8-10-2-0 for 18 points.
Not the stuff of legends, no doubt, but also not the stuff of the usual Calgary Flame second half performance, a pace that usually renders the fourth quarter an exercise in just playing out the string.
Kid you not, the locals are still very much in this thing despite that rotten, crusty taste you have in your mouth after watching them drop their last three on the heels of a four game winning streak.
With 21 games to go, it would be inadvisable to repeat the third quarter record and come in at 87 points - the club will have to bounce back to some degree.
But the ground laid in late November and early December is still on the books, with a return to the dance very much within the grasp of the Western Conference's current 7th place team.
And that alone is a huge step up from recent seasons.
There was just nothing pretty in the last 20 game segment. The team had trouble scoring goals, preventing goals and staying healthy.
But they hung in.
Calgary's most consistent element of their game is now the goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff. The cool as a cucumber Finnish stopper has made headlines for his breakout season since being acquired by the Flames in late November. He gives the team a chance to win each and every night that their offence shows to share the load.
With Roman Turek, an expensive but effective backup, the team is in better goaltending hands than at any point in their recent playoff missing years.
The other boon from the third quarter is Jarome Iginla, who scored 13 of his 30 goal total in the 20 games that make up the segment. The star is back, now they just need to find that pesky secondary scoring.
What's not working
In a word ... consistency.
Their offence has been good ... and well ... bad.
Their defence has been good ... and well ... bad.
Their goaltending has been good, and bad, and so to has their special team work.
Overall, the team has lacked the ability to get up and compete on a night in / night out basis to put substantial streaks together and give themselves some breathing room.
Going down to the wire is damn exciting, but with a more solid work ethic and an attention to Darryl Sutter's system things could have been significantly easier to wind down the season.
Key injuries have played a role as well, a factor that is very significant in the team's ability to stick to the plan and collect the wins.
Notably, the long term injury to Stephane Yelle, a loss that is akin to taking the yeast out of Darryl Sutter's bread. Some more flashy ingredients are on hand, but the catalyst has been missing since mid January.
Keys for the next quarter
Health – Enough is enough. The Flames may not be the Los Angeles Kings, but they've seen their share of key injuries this season and must avoid black luck coming down the stretch. No more injuries to goaltenders, centers and ~knock on wood~, continued health for Jarome Iginla are a must in order to have this season end on a good note.
Focus – The Calgary Flames were their most effective when they played that same forechecking, all out speed game regardless of the opponent or the score in the game. The team needs to derail the apprehension in their play and get back to what they do best - play a difficult style to play against and use their speed to make up for mistakes.
Secondary Scoring – Someone, anyone has to get hot. A good goal stretch from a Martin Gelinas, Steve Reinprecht, Craig Conroy, Dean McAmmond, Matthew Lombardi, ... anyone to help spell out the torrid second half pace of Iginla.
The Miikka Cult – The guy has had one "off game" in 21 stars in the Calgary nets. That's amazing, and he deserves a lot of credit for his consistency, but he also can't be done yet. Kipprusoff will probably make upwards of 15 starts in the team's final 21 games. If he can make 14 of them worthy of his other starts with the Flaming C the Flames will be in good shape to make the post season.
Bounces – The Flames are part of a pack of five teams, four of which will make the playoffs. If you rate these teams in terms of skill, they are likely middle of the pack and will need some good fortune to still be standing well all is said and done. Don't worry Flames fans ... they're due.
Third Quarter Offensive MVP : Jarome Iginla
An absolute no-brainer ... Jarome Iginla scored 13 goals in the 20 third quarter games, a feat that would seem somewhat amazing if you haven't tracked the guy's career. It's Jarome's time of the season, and he hasn't disappointed. However, like every Flame, the team captain will be asked to keep it up, the greatest challenge of all.
Third Quarter Defensive MVP : Rhett Warrener
With both Roman Turek and Miikka Kiprusoff on the sidelines, the team's defensive play was pushed to the limit in the third quarter. The guy that did his best to play well himself, but also kick his peers in the proverbial butt when things started to slide is Rhett Warrener. A captain without a letter, Warrener and his forward alter-ego Stephane Yelle are the pulse of the Flames' leadership group.