Sabres fanBill Wippert/Getty ImagesSabres fans are excited about the possibility of drafting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew it was coming. The Arizona Coyotes defenseman knew he was entering an arena in Buffalo in which fans of the home team might actually be rooting for him and his team to beat their beloved Sabres. “It’s weird,” he said, smiling and shaking his head slowly when we chatted earlier this week. “Obviously, you guys talk about it a lot, we just try to stay focused on what we have to do. Everybody in this locker room tries to win every game. It’s weird because, it’s like, you don’t want to lose games but [there’s] still good players you can get. So it’s a weird situation.” It was even weirder seeing it play out in reality. It was strange to hear the cheers in Buffalo when Coyotes forward Sam Gagner scored the winner Thursday, to see fans in Sabres jerseys leap up and celebrate the goal that beat their team. When I pointed it out on Twitter, one Sabres fan at the game said it was just a natural reaction. “Not like the fans were chanting ‘Let’s go Yotes,’” responded Justin Spencer (@Spencia1) in a tweet. Ultimately, what these fans were cheering for is the long-term success of the team they love. That’s perfectly understandable. For the league, though, the optics aren’t good. And you can’t help but feel for the players who turned in a good effort against the Coyotes. There may be tanking going on, but both the Sabres and Coyotes played with the pride you’d expect from professional athletes. To see that effort cheered against at home would be frustrating. “It’s tough to get momentum when your fans are rooting against you,” Sabres defenseman Mike Weber told the Buffalo News. “I respect our fans. I love our fans. I show up to work every day to do whatever I can for them and to play hard for them and my teammates. I’ve never seen that before.” Some Friday notes • Inevitably, when there’s a scene like what happened Thursday evening in Buffalo, it becomes a league-wide debate that could lead to possible rule changes -- in this case, changing the lottery system.
Todd McLellan and Dave Tippett Getty Images, US TODAY SportsTodd McLellan and Dave Tippett are behind the benches of rebuilding teams this season.
It was 1992 and Todd McLellan was weighing his options. He’d just won a championship while playing hockey in Europe, and had a contract offer to return, but a shoulder injury made it too painful to continue. The Melville, Saskatchewan, native was considering the path many of his friends and family took once they hung up the skates -- becoming a firefighter or policeman. And perhaps that would have been the next step if he hadn’t noticed an ad in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. The North Battleford North Stars needed a head coach and put a notice in the local paper to drum up interest. At 25 years old, McLellan wasn’t much older than the players competing in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, but figured he’d give it a shot. He sent in a résumé. Less than a week later, his phone rang and it was Bob Sheppard, a member of the North Stars' board of directors. They had a conversation and McLellan hung up the phone. He turned to his future wife, Debbie, and told her the news: He was now the head coach of the North Battleford North Stars. “She goes, ‘Now what?’” McLellan said on Wednesday. “I had no idea where to start.” He brought in Blaine Gusdal, a former teammate with the Saskatoon Blades, to be his assistant coach and a pair of 25-year-old coaches got to work. “He was brilliant at 25,” Gusdal said of McLellan during a Wednesday phone conversation. “He was mature beyond his years and I soaked it all in.” The two would sit in the cramped little North Battleford coaches office. They drew up plays together, while making tweaks to the team’s system. They realized that the way they played growing up and the way they were coached wasn’t going to work in an evolving game. They also worked the phones together at the trade deadline to bring in the kind of players they felt they needed to win. They did anything they could to change the losing culture in North Battleford. They won 16 games that year. “We took it on the chin,” Gusdal said, with a laugh. To the best of everyone’s recollection, it was also the last time a Todd McLellan team missed the playoffs.

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Jack EichelRichard T Gagnon/Getty ImagesJack Eichel might be ready for the NHL at age 18, but some GMs might prefer him to wait.
Raising the NHL draft age is a notion that comes up every few years. It’s an idea that gets pitched to the NHL Players' Association, the last time in 2012, and ultimately shot down. And right now, it’s percolating again in the NHL offices. It’s not a priority, but it is a subject of common discussion. NHL general managers met in Florida last week, and this wasn’t a topic they discussed as a group. However, it is a topic they would be more than happy to rally behind if it gains any steam. At least most of them. When the idea of increasing the draft age by a year was suggested to Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, he corrected it. “Two years,” he said, saying it would be better to bump the draft age from 18 to 20. “From a team point of view, you get a better handle on them. Those are a couple really important development years.” From a team perspective, Rutherford is hardly alone in having the desire to want extra time to evaluate prospects. Projecting how 17- and 18-year-old hockey players will look and perform in their mid-20s might be one of the toughest jobs in sports. It’s why the success rate in the draft is so low. If a team gets two NHL regulars out of a single draft, that’s considered a success. So yeah, most general managers would love to buy some more time to evaluate prospects. “You’ll make less mistakes," said a Western Conference GM. "It wouldn’t cost us as much money. You’d have a longer look and the kids would mature more much like the other sports.” “It’s always difficult at this age, drafting kids at 17 -- there’s so much projection that is involved,” said Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. “Anytime there’s development that can happen before you make your commitment, you stand to make better selections, more informed selections.” Added Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan: “It’s more physical maturity. I think it would help out, for sure.” So yeah, the guys whose job is on the line when it comes to getting talent evaluation right are in favor of more time to evaluate talent. But at the same time, these same guys would offer up a limb to add Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel to their rosters right now. Some players don’t need an extra two years to develop. Rutherford’s fix would be an exceptional player rule that would come with a draft age change, so guys like McDavid and Eichel wouldn’t have to dominate lower levels when they’re ready to play in the NHL.
[+] EnlargeConnor McDavid
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesUnder some proposals, exceptional talents such as Connor McDavid would not be subject to the age limit.
“Every once in a while, you’re going to get two or three guys that are clearly exceptional player that are 18,” Rutherford said. “I would be fine with that. For the most part, I think it would be better for everybody if it would be moved a year or two.” Well, perhaps not everybody. The NHLPA, for one, has zero appetite to make a change. “That would be a nonstarter,” said one source. The belief is that Donald Fehr doesn’t have any motivation to make the change, and that it’s hard to imagine a scenario that would alter that stance. At 18 years old, the argument goes, you can vote, you can be sent off to war, you should be able to pursue a career in professional hockey. One agent suggested, if there’s a change, there’d have to be a way to let players compete in the AHL while waiting, as there’s the real possibility their development would grow stagnant in junior hockey. “There’s a lot they can lose playing junior as a 19-year-old,” he said, adding that there’s probably a rule change to be made immediately that would allow drafted players to play in the AHL at 19 rather than in juniors. “There should be an exception. One kid a year. It sets players back, mentally and physically. It can cost guys careers.” Plus, as much as this rule change might help NHL teams in player evaluation, there are some general managers out there who see talent evaluation as a skill and an advantage certain teams enjoy over others. Detroit Red wings super-scout Hakan Andersson might not want to give his rivals another year or two to identify the hidden gems he’s already found in Sweden. Quite frankly, neither does Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray. He’s in the minority among GMs in that he’s not in favor of changing the draft age at all. “I wouldn’t be. I’m confident in picking 18-year-olds. Maybe that sounds arrogant, I don’t know,” Murray said. “I’m confident in our group picking 18-year-olds and projecting. I like the challenge. As an amateur scout, I like the challenge.” Murray has company in Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning, another executive known for his high-end talent evaluation skills. “If you wait an extra year, you get an extra year of development on a player. You’re not projecting what a player is going to turn out to be, you’re getting a more sure thing,” Benning said. “There’s less risk involved in taking a player because you get another year for him to develop physically but for me, I’ve been doing this long enough where I like drafting them as 17-year-olds. I have enough experience to tell what they’re going to get to when they’re 21, 22, 23. I think it is [an advantage].” A couple GMs brought up the possibility of lawsuits if there is an age change, but an NHL source said that wouldn’t be a huge concern. Legally, the draft age can be changed. It’s a CBA issue, and like anything in the CBA, if the two sides are willing to negotiate a change, it can be tweaked before the expiration of the current deal. During 2005 CBA negotiations in the NBA, commissioner David Stern wanted to raise the draft age to 20 years old, pointing out that the NFL’s minimum age was three years after high school. Jermaine O'Neal was one of the most vocal players against it, suggesting race played a factor. “As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it’s coming up,” he told in 2005. “You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?” Ultimately, the two sides settled on 19, a rule that is still in place. It’s a rule many around the NHL would be happy to see hockey adopt.

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Dean Lombardi and Glen SatherGetty ImagesGMs of big-market teams, like Dean Lombardi and Glen Sather, are quite mindful of the cap.
When Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi sat down to get contract extensions done for depth players like Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan earlier this season, he didn’t have the latest projections from the league on what the salary cap might look like for next season. During the December board of governors meeting, the league provided its teams with a salary-cap projection of about $73 million for the 2015-16 season, but the plunging Canadian dollar wiped out that optimistic guess. The Kings did their best to come up with internal projections. “The number we had on our templates, we had to do it with two or three schematics. We didn’t know what it was going to be,” Lombardi said when we sat down for a chat last week. “What it affects mostly is your ability to do term.” Lombardi’s work isn’t done.

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RangersAdam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThere was a lot to celebrate at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night -- at least for the Rangers.
It wasn’t a stretch to suggest that Sunday night’s showdown between the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers was a possible Stanley Cup finals preview. The Rangers are starting to put a gap between themselves and the rest of the East, while the Ducks have been on top of the Western Conference standings all season. Then the game was played -- and it was hard to imagine both these teams playing in the finals. The Rangers, if you missed it, poured in seven goals. Multiple players broke out of small scoring slumps, and New York ended a drought on the power play. It was impressive, and it also supports a theory suggested by one NHL GM last week. We were chatting about how wide-open the Eastern Conference race is, and he objected slightly. It may not be as wide-open as we think. “The Rangers are better than they were last year,” he said. And last year’s Rangers team was pretty good. That team played for a Stanley Cup, and if you believe the West is down slightly this season compared to last, that means the Rangers have wiped out any gap between them and the Western elite.

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Winnipeg JetsLance Thomson/Getty ImagesA mix of inherited veterans and home-grown talent has the Jets looking to make a postseason run.
One of the earliest criticisms of Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was that he kept too many players around from an Atlanta Thrashers organization that continually underwhelmed. Even now on the Jets roster, you have a number of Thrashers draft picks -- guys like Jim Slater, Ondrej Pavelec, Tobias Enstrom and Bryan Little. He gave contract extensions to players acquired by Atlanta like Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. While other GMs completely tore down rosters after they took over, keeping around just one or two players from the previous regime, Cheveldayoff showed faith in a group that hadn’t earned it. Instead of flushing out players from an underachieving organization, he doubled down on them. The result? Cheveldayoff sees a tight-knit group playing with a determination together you don’t always see from a hockey team. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be created artificially. “I’ve seen a lot of things as a group you like to see. You see a lot of camaraderie on and off the ice,” Cheveldayoff said when we chatted this week. “When something happens to one guy, our team -- sometimes maybe too much -- goes to defend them. That shows the guys truly care about each other. They are taking ownership of this team.” Even as injuries thinned out the lineup and threatened to crush the Jets, they persevered. In a tight playoff race, don’t ever underestimate a group that is hungry for a first taste of the playoffs.

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Who contends quickest with McDavid? 

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
Connor McDavidKen Andersen/Getty ImagesConnor McDavid has dominated the OHL. Which NHL team would he turn around the quickest?
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t prone to hyperbole. His level-headed, calm approach to building a franchise is exactly what you want out of the guy in charge. But even Kekalainen has allowed himself to imagine how franchise-altering the coming draft lottery could be if his Blue Jackets somehow get lucky. “I think everybody who basically knows the playoffs are out of reach have looked at the percentages and thought about it,” Kekalainen said when we chatted in the lobby of the Boca Raton Resort and Club following the conclusion of this week’s general managers meetings. And what if Columbus wins it? “I’ve seen the players at the top of the draft this year. I’ve run the draft for two different NHL teams for 11 years, and not too often are there players of this caliber available,” Kekalainen said. “Everybody in this business knows how special those players are. The lottery is like winning the [actual] lottery.” Kekalainen gave a laugh at his conclusion, but he’s exactly right. Landing the right to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in June’s draft changes everything for a franchise. It can cut a five-year rebuild in half. For a team like Columbus, it can take a season that’s been filled with bad luck and make it one that will be remembered for decades. It also raises the question: Of the five teams currently at the bottom of the standings, which are best poised for the fastest turnaround if they get lucky in the lottery and land McDavid? Here’s a look: 1. Toronto Maple Leafs (9.5 percent chance at getting the No. 1 pick) The Maple Leafs are a train wreck. If there isn’t drama today in Toronto, just give it a couple of days and something will surface. But make no mistake, if this franchise suddenly landed Connor McDavid, their rebuild under Brendan Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis would skyrocket.

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Who benefits most from 3-on-3 OT? 

March, 18, 2015
Mar 18
Ryan Miller Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty Images Ryan Miller has yet to allow a shootout goal this season.
BOCA RATON, Fla. - When Canucks GM Jim Benning took over in Vancouver, he noticed the Canucks weren’t particularly good in the shootout the previous season. In 2013-14, the Canucks won just five of 13 games in the shootout -- their second consecutive losing season in the shootout. In a tight playoff race, that can be a difference-maker. He knew getting Ryan Miller -- who has more shootout wins than any other active goalie -- would help, but he also targeted Nick Bonino and Radim Vrbata in part because of their shootout skills – especially Vrbata. “That went into our thinking on signing Vrbata. He had been good in the shootouts,” Benning said when we chatted on Tuesday afternoon. “Sometimes those extra two or three points are the difference of making the playoffs or not. We thought about it and considered it when we signed him.” This season, the Canucks have won four of six shootouts, with Bonino and Vrbata connecting on 40 percent of their shot attempts. Miller hasn’t allowed a shootout goal yet. Now, just as the shootout becomes a positive for the Canucks, comes the decision to completely minimize it with the recommendation from the GMs to implement 3-on-3 in overtime, which will severely cut down on the number of shootouts. In the case of the Canucks, they’ll survive just fine. Imagining the Sedins playing with all kinds of open ice is one of the selling points of the 3-on-3 option. It’s going to be awesome and a nice advantage for Vancouver when they’re out there. “Even in overtime this year, they’ve scored a couple overtime winners for us and they’ve been very good. Any time there’s more time and space on the ice with their skill level and sixth sense of knowing where each other is at, it has a chance to be exciting,” Benning said. “I like our team. If they go to the 4-on-4, then 3-on-3, we have enough skill guys that we can be successful.” So who does this rule change ultimately hurt and help?

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Connor McDavidVaughn Ridley/Getty ImagesConnor McDavid is a generational player, and will likely go to the team drafting No. 1.
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- First, there was silence. Silence that went on long enough that you thought the phone call might have been dropped. Then, a long "ummm," the kind of sound someone makes when he’s thinking really hard. Then more silence. After what seemed like a few minutes of deliberation from the NHL general manager on the phone, came the beginnings of an answer. This general manager’s team was a lottery candidate, and the question that stumped him was this: If your team somehow wins the lottery, what would it take for you to trade the pick and pass on drafting Connor McDavid? “It would have to be built around a young stud,” he answered, naming a couple of superstar players in the league who would qualify, guys up for major awards right now. “But how many GMs are in position to expose themselves to being wrong?” On Monday, following the first day of the NHL general managers meeting, this same question was posed to Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, another GM whose team is fighting for a playoff spot. If the Jets don’t make it, they’ll likely fall into one of those final lottery positions, the kind that have less than a 1 percent chance of earning the No. 1 pick. But if lightning strikes, what would it take him to trade out of it? “Probably a new general manager,” Cheveldayoff said, laughing. “When special players like that come around, they certainly can make an impact.” Really, there’s one GM most qualified to answer that question. Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray currently runs the franchise most likely to win the draft lottery, and barring a late-season charge, will have a 20 percent chance of landing the McDavid pick when the NHL hosts its draft lottery.

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Rickard RakellDebora Robinson/NHLI/Getty ImagesAnaheim improved to 15-3-0 against the Central Division with a win over the Nashville Predators.
The Central is the best division in hockey. At this point, there’s not much left to debate on that front. The St. Louis Blues have pulled themselves into a race with Nashville for the top spot and are poised to finally break through in the postseason. The Chicago Blackhawks are lurking in third place, perhaps the division’s best shot at a Stanley Cup winner. There hasn’t been a hotter team than the Minnesota Wild since the All-Star break, and Winnipeg has emerged as a big, heavy team that -- if it gets the goaltending -- should make it to the postseason. Even the bad teams -- Colorado and Dallas -- aren’t bad. They’re just future playoff teams figuring things out. It’s a powerhouse division and it makes what the Anaheim Ducks have done against it even more impressive.

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Johnny BoychukGregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty ImagesJohnny Boychuk has 32 points in 59 games this season, and a 56.3 Corsi for percentage.
A few weeks ago, the name Johnny Boychuk was suggested to an NHL general manager as a guy who would be a perfect fit to bolster his defense in free agency this summer. There was speculation that the New York Islanders had made Boychuk an offer, but without a signature on the contract, the possibility that he might find the open market remained.

Not to this GM.

“I don’t think he’s going to hit the market,” he said. “They’ll get him signed. He’s having a good year.”

It took a few weeks, but he was spot on. On Thursday, Islanders GM Garth Snow got it done. The Islanders announced a seven-year contract extension for Boychuk worth a total of $42 million.

That’s a lot of term and money for a 31-year-old, but it’s also the biggest sign that the rebuild is about complete with the Islanders. That Snow can now trade for and retain attractive free agents from other teams, something that’s typically eluded him during his time as GM with the Islanders, shows just how much the perception of the Islanders has changed.

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Matt O'ConnorRichard T Gagnon/Getty ImagesTerriers netminder Matt O'Connor has refined his game this season, and could soon be in the NHL.
There were 48 goalies on the ice, but one stood out immediately. The USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms were holding a goalie tryout before the 2010-11 season. They already had a starter, and took another goalie high in the previous draft, but it never hurts to add depth.

They got more than that. A 6-foot-5 goalie from Ontario immediately caught the eye of the Youngstown goalie coach, who turned to coach Anthony Noreen and asked, “Who is that kid?”

“We didn’t know Matt O'Connor from Adam,” said Noreen, now the head coach and GM in Youngstown. “We watched him closely, there was no doubt he was the best goalie. He came into our camp, no one knew who he was, undrafted, and made the team.”

One year later, he was the full-time starting goalie for the Phantoms, leading them to their first playoff berth. It was quite a meteoric rise, but not enough of an arrival on the hockey scene to get drafted.

“Some teams were interested,” Noreen said. “You get biased when you’re around him every day. We would sit and go ‘How in the world has nobody drafted this kid?’ We were shocked that nobody did. It happens.”

It might have been frustrating then, but the payoff comes now.

Every year around this time, there’s a college free agent who stands out from the rest, who draws all kinds of interest and signs with an NHL team after his season ends. O’Connor is that guy this year. He’s the starting goalie on a Boston University team with championship aspirations -- and it won’t just be BU fans watching every save closely.

According to an NHL source, there are 14 teams that can be characterized as having strong interest in signing him. Five of those teams have already offered to play him in the NHL this season in order to burn a year on what would be a two-year entry-level deal.

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ZuccarelloMike Stobe/Getty ImagesHigh-intensity wins in March can lead to advantages for teams later down the line.
Tuesday night was a night of hockey that had a playoff feel to it. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders played a tight, intense game in their final regular-season showdown in Nassau Coliseum. The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning kept each other scoreless in a game Carey Price can turn in with his Hart Trophy application. It took a bit of bad luck and a great individual effort by Tyler Johnson in overtime to finally beat him.

The Winnipeg Jets and St. Louis Blues played in a wild one that may end up being a preview of a playoff series down the road -- they were a great matchup and the players delivered with great games.

As the teams lock themselves into playoff spots, you can’t help but wonder what drives these groups down the stretch.

The biggest, most surface-motivating carrot is playoff positioning. Montreal, for instance, earned a point by getting to overtime and now has the best record in the league. The Canadiens would have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs as the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

For the record, those same Canadiens knocked out last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners in the second round when they beat the Boston Bruins. Since the 2004-05 lockout, just two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Detroit and Chicago) went on to win the Stanley Cup, feeding the perception that home-ice advantage isn’t all that important.

The moment the reputation for home ice and playoff seeding slipped dramatically in perceived value may have been the 2012 Stanley Cup finals,

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Devan DubnykSergei Belski/USA TODAY SportsIt is no exaggeration to say that Devan Dubnyk has transformed the Wild since joining them Jan. 14.
The St. Louis Blues haven’t played the Minnesota Wild since Nov. 29, which is kind of crazy. Just a little has changed since then.

From the Blues' perspective, they’re trying to survive without Kevin Shattenkirk, an injury that’s been lost in the leaguewide perspective. Before he went down, he was having one of the best seasons among defensemen in the league.

The Wild? They’ve transformed completely.

They’ve evolved from a team that looked like it might miss the playoffs to threatening Chicago for the third-place spot in the Central Division. On Jan. 14, Minnesota was 17 points behind the Blackhawks, and now that gap is almost completely wiped out. Incredible.

On Monday, during a chat with Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, the conversation shifted to the Wild and goalie Devan Dubnyk, who the Blues will finally see this weekend in the first of three meetings down the stretch between these two playoff contenders.

Hitchcock hasn’t seen Dubnyk live with the Wild, but he hasn’t had to. The video doesn’t lie.

“I’ve seen him on TV. There’s no holes,” Hitchcock said. “It looks like there’s nothing to shoot at every night. I watched Devan play a lot when he was with Kamloops [in the WHL]. He was a very good junior goalie. He’s at that age when you look at a lot of goalies, this is when they start to mature. He looks like he’s got that now.”

The fit has been unquestionably perfect. Dubnyk has saved the Wild’s season. Now the question becomes: Should they commit to him long term

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Calgary FlamesJana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty ImagesThe Flames have gone 3-1-1 since losing captain Mark Giordano to a season-ending injury.
It was a game that has the potential to shift the perspective on the Calgary Flames. Playing in the final contest of a seven-game road trip, they trailed the Ottawa Senators by four goals in the third period. The analytics folks surely had the word "regression" almost completely spelled out, ready to send out over Twitter.

Then, the Flames did it again.

They scored four goals in the final 13 minutes to force overtime, and nearly won it in the shootout. It was an amazing flurry of goals and guile, with Kris Russell's wrister tying it at 17:42 (more on him in a moment).

The rally gave the Flames a 4-2-1 record in their trip East. This was the trip, by the way, that was supposed to sink the Flames.

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