Gap between Flames and the NHL's true elite crystallizes in latest setback

Nikita Kucherov had a pair of assists in his return from injury as the Tampa Bay Lightning used a three-goal third period to beat the Calgary Flames 4-1.

Blake Coleman’s return to Tampa included getting a new ring and a new perspective on the two-time defending Cup champions.

He knew his former team was as complete as any in the league, and that it wouldn’t be as much fun to be a visitor at Amalie Arena.

But the hope was that his new club was much closer to being ready to measure up than they ended up showing.

“Sometimes you learn lessons the hard way in this league and I thought we learned a lot of them tonight,” said the Lightning-turned-Flames grinder following a 4-1 setback in Tampa. “The last two games we’ve gotten looks at teams that are going to be there at the end of the season and when it matters most, and now we know the level we have to get our game to.”

The question is, can the Flames get there anytime soon?

Being outscored a combined 10-3 in the Sunshine State this week suggests they’re much further away than they thought.

“I would disagree with that statement,” said Coleman, who knows a thing or two about what it takes, as he received his second Stanley Cup ring from teammates earlier in the day, followed by a video tribute and ovation during the game. “As far as what we have in the room, I think there’s a lot of belief in our group.

"There’s a lot of guys not playing up to their potential in the last couple games, and I think if we get everybody playing the right way, and the way we can, we definitely have what it takes to not only hang with these teams but beat these teams.

“I’ve seen this team play a lot better with a little bit more desperation. We’re going to be just fine.

“It’s a time to look in the mirror after these two games and really man up (Friday) for what’s going to be another really good test and another measuring stick to see if we can step up for the challenge.”

That test will come in Carolina, where the Flames' third game in four nights presents the team with an opportunity to turn the tides on a trip that threatens to seriously dampen the mojo of a club that felt good before their sunbelt sojourn.

As good as the Flames have been this year, they’re now 0-for-3 on their most recent Measuring Stick Meter, if you include their 6-2 loss the Panthers Tuesday, and their loss in Vegas before Christmas.

Asked if he was more frustrated with the outcome or the way his team played, Matthew Tkachuk was clear.

“You’re probably most frustrated with the loss, as it’s kind of a results-based league right now,” said Tkachuk, whose club was out-chanced and outshot (33-27).

“But the way things are trending right now, with two losses where they weren’t really close games, that’s frustrating as well.”

Understandably so.

Making his first start since Dec. 7, Dan Vladar threatened to be the story of the night through 40 minutes when he stopped all but one of the 27 shots fired his way by a talented Tampa club bolstered by the return of Nikita Kucherov following a 32-game absence.

Aided by the goalpost on four occasions, Vladar kept the Flames in a game they rarely threatened to score in before Corey Perry put the hosts up 1-0 midway through.

From that point on it became the Kucherov Show, as his chemistry with Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point was on full display, setting up both in the third.

Despite the fight the Flames showed after whistles, they lacked the emotion and skill necessary to start proving they can hang with boys as big as the Bolts.

Although radically different styles of play, the good news is that the Flames were very much in both Florida games until the hosts pulled away in the third.

The Panthers loss saw both team trade chances all night, in a fast, heavy, wide-open affair.

This game was far more buttoned-down, as the Lightning kept the Flames to the outside where they rarely threatened to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy until Dillon Dube broke the shutout with four minutes left in a 4-0 game.

“Nothing wrong with how we played, we just played a better team,” shrugged Darryl Sutter, who was far less critical of his lads than he was two nights earlier.

“It was a one-goal game going into the third. But at the same time you have to finish the opportunities you get against the top teams. There’s a difference between them and us, for sure.”

Yes, for the second game in a row, that difference was crystal clear.

As Sutter frequently reminds everyone, “it’s all part of the process” of building the Flames organization from the ashes he inherited.

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