You could argue the Olympic break came at the worst possible time for the Calgary Flames. They had won six of eight heading into the layoff and had finally worked their way out of a horrific offensive slump during which they had been shutout six times between mid-December and mid-January. Picking up where they left off won’t be an easy task.
It’s an arduous schedule down the NHL stretch — 24 games in 46 days — but Flames head coach Bob Hartley is looking at the final six weeks of the season as a chance to continue building an identity — a winning identity.
“We want to keep progressing,” Hartley said Thursday, after putting his team through a rigorous 80-minute on-ice workout, followed by off-ice conditioning, which was briefly interrupted to take in overtime of the Canada-U.S. women’s gold-medal game. “I challenged our veterans, (and) I challenged our younger players to keep the progression going — leadership-wise, work ethic, attitude … I think that we’re showing some good signs of progress, and that’s where we want to be.
“So the next 24 games are a big key for us. We want to give us a good swing. You never know what can happen. We’re still in it. Obviously, we know that we’re a long-shot, so we’re not going to try to fool no one. But at the same time, we start on a good streak, and you never know what can happen. That’s our challenge.”
While nobody is about to start thinking that playoffs are a realistic possibility — the Flames sit tied for 28th in the NHL with a 22-29-7 record — the focus inside the locker room will be strictly on winning. Outside the room, it’ll be just the opposite, with media and fans focusing on the March 5 trade deadline and what will likely be another high draft pick at the NHL Draft table in a little more than four months time in Philadelphia. Despite forging a reputation as a hard-working, gutsy group through the first 58 games, Flames captain Mark Giordano doesn’t believe that’s enough with which to come out of the 2013-14 season.
“I think we have to try and get as many wins as we can,” Giordano said. “We do the whole hard work stuff, and that’s great — we’ve been a hardworking team, and we’ve been in a lot of close games. “But to take that next step, we have to learn how to win and win those tight ones.” It’s been a long time since this franchise played any sort of meaningful games in the months of March and April, but while the next 24 contests may not mean much standings-wise for the Flames, the fact they’ll likely mean a lot to the opposition could benefit Calgary in the big picture.
“These are going to be good games for our team to play in,” Giordano said. “The last 20 (games) are always playoff-type atmosphere because teams are fighting to get in and teams are fighting for position, so they’re important games, and, I think, it’s going to be good for our young guys to get in them. And for the guys who have been around a little bit, we need to make sure we’re getting over that hump and show it’s not OK to lose.”Going into the Olympic break playing well helped breathe life into the room and gave Flames — young and old — something to look forward to when they reconvened at the Saddledome this week.
“It was frustrating here for a while, where we were in games but just couldn’t find a way to win and we couldn’t find a way to score,” Flames blueliner Chris Butler added. “To finally get a stretch of games (playing well), it couldn’t have come at any better time. It kind of sucks that you go into the break and you had been playing well and you get six out of eight. But, I think, coming back here, it’s such a better attitude approaching this last 24 games knowing that we were building something. “And hopefully, we can continue that.”