After the Calgary Flames had dropped a 3-0 game to the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday night, Coach Bob Johnson was greeted by Harry Neale, recently dismissed as coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
"I know the feeling. Hang in there," Neale said.
"I can handle it. It's the young kids I'm concerned about," Johnson replied.
The Flames will be at Capital Centre tonight, trying to sweep their three-game season series from the Washington Capitals.
Calgary, so impressive early in the season when it beat Washington by scores of 4-2 and 5-4, has lost 12 of its last 13 games, and changes appear both necessary and imminent.
It is considered unlikely that Johnson, renowned as a motivator and teacher, will go the way of Neale. But the Flames arrived here early yesterday morning with 25 players, and that is too bulky a roster to survive intact for long.
Cliff Fletcher, the Flames' president and general manager, remained in Calgary, where he was believed to be trying to arrange a trade for Detroit left wing John Ogrodnick, whose slow start this season coincidentally expedited Neale's departure.
The Flames' need for a sniper in the skate-and-shoot Smythe Division is evident. Their top scorer, veteran Lanny McDonald, has a mere 34 points; no team leader in the NHL has fewer.
"We'll probably go a few more games and make an evaluation," Johnson said. "Whether we make a trade or whatever, we have too many around right now. But this is a good chance for the young kids to learn, playing three tough teams in their buildings (Philadelphia, Washington and Boston).
"Certainly, we can improve our defense by learning from these games.
"Philly won on defense. They deprived us of a lot of second shots. That's something we need to do."
In Philadelphia, the Flames played good defense, but they were let down by the special teams as the Flyers scored twice on power plays and once short-handed. Two of the goals seemed soft, rookie goaltender Mike Vernon missing a long shot and having another carom off his skate.
"We wanted to make it tight and keep it close, and we did," Johnson said. "But the result was the same. We're not getting the timely goal and we're not making the big save. The whole month of November we lost only two games. Then we were getting the big goal and the big save.
"The nature of the games hasn't changed. When we lost 11 in a row, seven were by one goal. I pulled my goaltender in six straight games. But when you're in a drought, the big goals don't happen for you. They happen for the other team.
"When you're losing, you're not quite as sharp. You're trying to think out there and you're trying to force things. That doesn't work. Hockey is a reaction game."
The Flames did score one timely goal, by Jim Peplinski in overtime Thursday to beat Vancouver and end the 11-game slide. Had the Flames lost that one before commencing a five-game road trip, they would have been a realistic threat to match Washington's NHL record of 17 straight defeats, set in 1975.
The man who usually makes the big saves, Reggie Lemelin, has been given a week off to try to get his act together. A series of subpar performances has ballooned his goals-against average to 4.04. Last year, when he won 30 games, the figure was 3.46.
Surprisingly, those automatic sellout crowds in Calgary have not been turning on their heroes.
"The fans could have gotten down on the team, but they didn't," said Al Coates, Fletcher's assistant. "The crowd actually was a big factor in the win that ended it. Vancouver got up, 4-3, but the fans were really cheering and they gave the team a lift.
"It was a strange streak, anyway. We were in just about every game, but we'd give up a soft goal or be beaten by a funny bounce. When it started, we were 19 points ahead of third place and we're still eight up, with games in hand. Not many teams can lose 11 in a row without somebody sailing by you." Aside from soft goals and funny bounces, the Flames have been victimized by an inept power play that enters tonight's game with only seven successes in the last 84 opportunities.
Nor were all of the seven worth writing home about. Dan Quinn kicked one in against Vancouver and thanked Lady Luck and referee Ron Wicks for his first goal in seven weeks. Another was scored when Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr casually waited for a teammate to touch a puck for an icing call and McDonald got there first.
"We have to do some work on our special teams," Johnson said. "We had meetings Sunday and talked about the need to shoot more and to get the shots off more quickly. Then in the heat of battle, guys forget and they're hesitant, and nothing happens.
"Our power play was third in the league last year and we have the same personnel. We were near the top for the first month of this season, and one preseason game we scored six times. But all of a sudden, nothing is working."
Apparently, the Flames' scouting is off kilter, too. Appraising tonight's game, Johnson said, "We've beaten Washington both times, but now they're playing well and we're not playing well."
The Capitals, who have lost two in a row after struggling to beat Detroit, merely hope to get well, at the Flames' expense. Oilers 5, Bruins 3
In Boston last night, Edmonton's Glenn Anderson scored his 29th and 30th goals and set up Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for two others. Outshot by 38-22, the Oilers got three goals on power plays while the Bruins were zero for seven while playing with a man advantage.
Gretzky, extending his point-scoring streak to 34 games, and Messier each had two assists. So did Paul Coffey, extending his NHL record for defensemen to 23 games in a row with at least one point. Maple Leafs 7, Red Wings 4
In Toronto, rookie left wing Steve Thomas scored two goals and assisted on two in the defeat of Detroit. A brawl five minutes from the end brought a 19-minute interruption and ejection of nine players.