CALGARY - The battered Calgary Flames limped down the home stretch of the regular season and they hobbled out of the post-season Monday night in much the same way.
The Flames were eliminated from their opening round Western Conference series with the Chicago Blackhawks, losing Game 6 4-1 in home ice.
Without defencemen Robyn Regehr (knee), Dion Phaneuf (broken ribs) and with Cory Sarich playing with a fractured foot, the Flames could not keep up with the young, exuberant, skilled Blackhawks team that finished just eight points back of the perennial Central division-winning Detroit Red Wings.
"Say what you want, these players tonight worked as hard as they could but two things happened, the attrition erodes your confidence a little bit and they're smart, bright people. They know there's a difference (missing your top players)," said Calgary coach Mike Keenan. "No disrespect to the players coming in but you're talking about significant players in this league, not just this team."
Although the separation between Calgary and Chicago during the regular season was a mere six points and they were even with 46 victories apiece, the playoff series proved another story.
While the injuries were piling up in the Flames training room, Chicago iced the same line-up for all six games with the exception of game three when Patrick Kane sat out with the flu.
"This was a close series and if we have Robyn Regehr in this series and Cory Sarich healthy - he played with a fractured foot, and now Phaneuf. That's three top defencemen out. Take three, or even two of their top defenceman - take (Duncan) Keith and (Brent) Seabrook out, and it's a different series," Keenan said.
"Attrition is part of playoffs and it's just unfortunate that we got very bad breaks in that we literally ended up with breaks."
Also injured for Calgary was Daymond Langkow, who entered the playoffs nursing one bad hand that cost him nine games late in the season. Then, in game four, he took a shot off the other hand.
Rene Bourque's health was also questionable after he missed game four after aggravating a sprained ankle that cost him the final 24 games of the regular season.
"It's cliche to say there's no excuses but sometimes there's a reason," said Keenan.
Not being able to see his club at its full potential goes down as Keenan's biggest regret.
"It's really disappointing because I thought we had a lot of positive growth with our players during the regular season. Then the final three weeks of the season, we really got decimated and the attrition grew as the playoffs went on in terms of healthy people," he said.
In 19 seasons since hoisting its only Stanley Cup in 1989, Calgary has reached the second round only once - a run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 when it lost to Tampa Bay in game seven.
The other 10 times they've reached the post-season, they haven't got out of the first round including first round exits each of the past four seasons to Anaheim, Detroit, San Jose, and now the Blackhawks.
Reflecting over the past four exits, captain Jarome Iginla says this year stings the most.
"It's very disappointing, very hard to swallow, and hard to take," said Iginla, who has spent his entire career with the Flames. "This was the best team, no question. The organization gave us the opportunity to go deep and to win and we didn't get it done."
Injuries aside, they were other contributing factors to Calgary failing to get out of the first round yet again.
With a penalty kill ranked fourth in the NHL in the regular season at 83.4 per cent, Calgary struggled against Chicago, surrendering seven power play goals on 24 attempts for an efficiency rate of barely 70 per cent.
"The ironic thing is that our penalty kill has been pretty much our most consistent thing all year so it's extremely disappointing that our penalty kill didn't really get the job done," said defenceman Adrian Aucoin.
More so than the actual amount of penalties taken was the poor timing and the veterans taking them.
Veteran forward Todd Bertuzzi took a penalty in the opening 90 seconds of both Games 5 and 6. Monday's penalty proved costly as Chicago converted the ensuing power play to score first for the fourth game in a row.
Two nights earlier, it was a similar script. Calgary survived Bertuzzi's early indiscretion only to take the next penalty as well and with Cory Sarich off for a cross-check after the play was dead, Chicago scored the first of three goals in less than two minutes as they took control.
"You work so hard to get in there and when you're not able to do it and you go out in the first round, it's terrible," said Miikka Kiprusoff, who finished with a dozen saves versus Chicago in Game 6 as the Flames outshot the Blackhawks 44-16.
Considering the third place Vancouver Canucks have been home and resting for six days after capping a four-game sweep of the No. 6 ranked St. Louis Blues, Calgary is left to wonder how different things might have been had it not squandered what once was a 13-point lead atop the Northwest Division to finish fifth and surrender home ice advantage.
"We should have done a lot better job ending the regular season. We should have hung on to third place," said trade deadline acquisition Olli Jokinen, who came over from the Phoenix Coyotes.
"Still, going into the playoffs, we were a confident group and we felt we could beat that team. Game 1 and Game 2 we let it slip over there. We had a chance to steal one of those first two games and Game 5 was embarrassing."