Charlton's NHL: They Choked

Rick Charlton
March 19th, 2002

How do we say this politely.

They choked.

No, there isn't any way to dance around it this time, their own hands around their own necks squeezing out any life they might have had these last four games against the worst the NHL has to offer.

They've been caught red-handed.

The Flames have been a plus-.500 team against the better teams in the league this year, a better than decent record against a lengthy enough list of quality opponents to suggest they've been teasing us a bit, capable of more than their overall placing might indicate.

Calgary's critics say they fluked out those three wins against Detroit, a road win in Philadelphia, a shellacking of Toronto, a terrific come from behind win in Dallas, etc, etc.

But the list is a long one. Too long. They deserved to win those games because they played well enough to put their boots on the body when the final buzzer had sounded.

When confronted with the easiest of marks, however, they fall well under the break even point. An 0-3-1 mark against Florida, Tampa, Columbus and Minnesota to end their epic nine game road trip is only the latest in a long string of such failures.

And that has been where the season has been lost - against beatable opponents. The final three games of this road trip bear mute testimony to that fact. If reversed those six points would have left the Flames two points out of a playoff spot with a still reasonable shot at breaking their relentless run of futility.

But they choked.

There is no other way to look at it.

Does it matter that Minnesota garnered only 13 shots last night but scored on three of them - a shorthanded breakaway, a five on three power play, and a regular powerplay. In all three cases, Calgary starter Roman Turek was hung out to dry. But those three chances were enough.

In Columbus, a similar story unfolded. A 43 save night for Ron Tugnutt and three similar golden opportunities surrendered by the Flames at the other end, all of which ended up in the net.

And what of the 46 saves by Roberto Luongo at Miami and the five goalposts against Nik Khabibulin in Tampa?

Bad luck? Bad timing for bad luck?

It harkens back to the 50 plus save performance by San Jose backup Wade Flaherty in Game 7 of the 1994 playoffs. Or the 50 plus save performance of Kirk McLean of Vancouver in Game 7 in 1993.

Curse of the Flames? Chokers?

This season will mark the 13th consecutive spring without a playoff victory for this franchise, the sixth consecutive without any playoffs at all.

But the calamitous end to this critical road trip is a grim reminder of that playoff floperoo against San Jose in 1994, still ranking as one of the more lopsided upsets in Stanley Cup history. As in that series, the Flames outplayed their opponents badly but failed to get the job done.

"Puck luck," as Paul Kruse declared at the time?

No, just a good old-fashioned choke.

HERE'S HOW THIS WORKS - the Rangers add right wing/rover Pavel Bure for $10 million, toss Igor Ulanov's $3 million the other way then cut Theo Fleury's $7 million loose in the summer. Net zero. Is Bure an improvement over Fleury? A laisse faire enigma for an tightly wound enigma? The Rangers continue to spin their wheels.

"THIS TEAM HAS ENOUGH PLAYERS TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS. It shouldn't be limping in. What the problem is it doesn't have anything to do with the talent level. It's a work-ethic problem." - New York Islander GM Mike Milbury, clinging to a playoff spot after an 11-1 start to the season.

"THE RISKS YOU RUN ARE TOO HIGH if you don't get the one player you want and end up with nothing. The easiest thing to do is to hang on and keep the players that you have. The organization made some hard decisions last summer, and it may not have worked out as we hoped, but I think it would have been a great failure not to try anything." - Dallas GM Doug Armstrong.

"IT'S GOTTEN TO THIS POINT BECAUSE OF THE INTERNET. If one newspaper has it, everybody has it. That's different than five years ago when you might see it in one paper, but it wouldn't have a life of its own." Sharks GM Dean Lombardi on trade rumours.

"THERE ARE GUYS YOU JUST CAN'T TRUST. That's just the way it is." - San Jose coach Darryl Sutter on rumour-mongering journalists.

THE TAX ON NHL PLAYERS TO BE ANNOUNCED TODAY IN THE ALBERTA BUDGET could be a potential bonanza for the Oilers and Flames, but it merely evens the playing field with 14 USA jurisdictions that have similar legislation already in place. When a Calgary Flame visits LA, he is taxed. He returns to Alberta and reclaims the tax in his local jurisdiction. Which means your hard-earned tax dollars have essentially been paid out to taxpayers in California. Now that the Alberta government is jumping on board, it will be our turn to get even, collecting from California taxpayers just as they collect from us. But . . . . .whoops, that's not the way its going to work. Alberta is going to give the money to the Oilers and Flames. So the "evening out" process in fact is still a net subsidy going to California. Call the tax on visiting players in Alberta what it is - a de facto subsidy funded by taxpayers. But its no different than the business owner who writes off his Flames tickets as a marketing cost. Hidden. Discreet. Non-offensive to the average taxpayer. But a subsidy nonetheless. And for the Flames and Oilers, perhaps enough to make it to the 2004 deadline.

THE CURIOUS MIKE VERNON SITUATION OF LAST WEEK bears one last look if for no other reason than to stir the pot of paranoia. Although Craig Button took the heat, the bullets, and the mallet for the incident, I couldn't help but note that at no time did he bother to substitute the word "we" with the singular "I" in his apology. "What's changed is on Saturday we'd taken a position that we thought was the best resolution to our issues but after spending the last two days hearing everybody's voice, we felt this is a better resolution to help achieve our goals," explained Button to the Calgary SUN. Well, that's one version. Here's another. Coach Greg Gilbert wants the dissatisfied and chirping Vernon out of his dressing room. When Vernon takes his dissatisfaction public, Button sends the veteran through waivers for a second time and assigns him to the minors. Two days later, Button, escorted by Lanny McDonald, is on a plane to Connecticut to retrieve a backup goaltender who hasn't played since December. Gilbert apparently blows a gasket when he finds out Vernon is coming back, probably over the wishes of Button. The fires grow so hot that Flames president Ken King makes a mysterious and sudden appearance in Tampa and, we noted, was unable to keep a quiver of anger from his voice the same day when discussing the incident on the TEAM960. Is this a case of an ownership/management group being overly protective of a fading veteran? To the point of interfering with Button's ability to run the show as he sees fit? If so, the people above Button need to re-examine the consequences of what they have done. In the first place, Vernon had the discipline coming to him. On two occasions in the last year and a half - Val Bure and Marc Savard - Button has been accused of keeping dressing room distractions around far too long. In the case of Vernon, where Button acted decisively, he was ordered to reverse the decision. And the team garners only one of a possible eight points in the next four games against easy opponents at a back-breaking time of the year. My advice - if you hire a guy to run the team then back him up and let him do it. If you don't trust his decisions or somehow feel compelled to publicly overrule him - particularly over a minor incident like this - then save everyone some time and replace him. But he's the third GM in seven years. And his partner is the third coach in three years. On who's desk does the buck stop?