The evidence is indisputable, the Calgary Flames are still a tier or two down from being amongst the league’s elite.
No newsflash there.
No shame either, as the team just capped a gruelling trip with consecutive losses to three of the league’s top five outfits.
Supporters can take solace in the fact that in all three affairs the Flames found a way to keep the game close, for varying stretches, despite being clearly outplayed.
However, all three games got away from them in the third and wound up being convincing losses that saw the Panthers score five unanswered goals; the Lightning score four straight; and the Hurricanes post an uninterrupted quartet.
Some might call them lapses, others would deem them inevitabilities.
Either way, they added up to a humbling punctuation on measuring stick games that saw the Flames outscored 16-6.
That’s not how they hoped or envisioned stacking up against the east’s beasts.
So, while being questioned about Friday’s 6-3 loss in Carolina, Darryl Sutter figured it was a good time to remind people just how low expectations were for this group in the fall.
“This summer you threw everybody under the bus - don’t do it yet,” said Sutter of the summertime sentiment in Calgary where many feared the club was on the cusp of having to rebuild.
“Remember what we said, I was trying to be an ‘honest, hard-working team that tries to make the playoffs.’
“So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
With that lens on it, they’re doing a hell of a job.
“We’ve played 22 road games and 11 home games,” said Sutter, whose club is a remarkable 13-7-2 away from the Dome.
“So, to be where we are, we’re probably fortunate to be in the spot we’re in.”
It’s a much-needed perspective as the 17-10-6 squad, which spent 19 days on the sideline due to COVID-19, will have to spend the next six days waiting for their chance to get back on track.
The lads certainly deserved credit for following up their sunshine state shellackings with an impressive first period that saw them outshoot the hosts 21-10.
It was quite a statement given their schedule, and the fact Sutter had significantly altered his lines and power play units, and opted to start Dan Vladar on consecutive nights.
The coach would later admit starter Jacob Markstrom was deemed a tad nicked up by the training staff, prompting Vladar’s first career back-to-backs.
The Canes responded to an early Blake Coleman goal with a late Jesper Fast strike that was followed up by three more Carolina goals in a second period the Flames were outshot 18-7 in.
After Matthew Tkachuk scored later in the second to make it 4-2, there was Johnny Gaudreau finishing a rink-long breakaway pass from Erik Gudbranson midway through the third to make it a one-goal game few saw coming.
“We had a little momentum and we were right there,” said Gaudreau, whose club was unable to beat Frederik Andersen before Brady Skjei and Andrei Svechnikov salted the game away in the final two minutes.
“A lot of (the three) games we were right there and we let the games get away from us. It can’t happen.”
Sutter was proud of his team for staying in the fight and starting with what he deemed the team’s best of the 15 road periods his club has played since Christmas. (The trip opened with wins in Seattle and Chicago).
Dating back to their pre-Christmas/Covid slump of four games, the Flames have now lost seven of their last nine, with no chance to make amends until at least Thursday when the Flames are scheduled to host Ottawa.
After that they’ll have to wait another five days before facing the Panthers again.
Two games in 11 days isn’t what this team needs now.
“We did some good things but we’re still going home empty handed – that’s the tough part,” said Gudbranson, who, like the Flames, has been a pleasant surprise this year.
“We lost three straight – we haven’t done that too often this year. If we’re taking anything from (the trip) it’s we have to stop this little streak, come together as a group and find a way to win a game. That’s an area of focus for us right now.”
To put things in perspective, it marked the first regulation loss of the season for the Flames against Metropolitan division opponents, against which they are 8-1-2.
It was also Calgary’s first regulation loss in the second half of back-to-back games, dropping them to 3-1-1.
This is a damn good hockey team that’s come a long way in a short amount of time this season.
Sure, their hope was that they’d measure up a little better against the class of the league.
But with 30 home games remaining, and just 19 on the road, Sutter isn’t wrong to remind people that perhaps expectations were getting a little out of hand after the unlikely start they had.