GLENDALE, Ariz. — Brad Treliving wouldn’t sugarcoat Calgary’s struggles as he sipped a cup of bitter coffee in the Gila River Arena hallways, hours before the Flames took on the Arizona Coyotes.
“We aren’t generating enough chances, we’re giving up too many quality chances, we aren’t getting enough saves and it’s difficult to make saves when you’ve got to make 15 10-bellers a night,” Calgary’s general manager said. “We’ve underperformed across the board so you end up in the situation we’re in.”
The situation the Flames find themselves in after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Coyotes isn’t pretty. At 8-13-2, Calgary is a mere three points ahead of Edmonton for the Pacific Division cellar. More importantly, the Flames have fallen seven points off the brutal Western Conference playoff pace less than two months into the NHL season.
If the playoff picture unfolds as Treliving and many others believe it will, the Central Division will grab five of the West’s eight playoff spots, leaving three for the Pacific. That increases the pressure on the Flames.
“It sure looks like that’s how it will go, but you can’t get into that mindset where you lose a couple and you start saying ‘we’ve got to win three in a row. We’ve got to win five in a row,'” Treliving said. “You get the abacus out and start doing all the math and your head explodes.
“We’ve got to play one good game and play consistently sound hockey and at that point you have a chance to pile up points.”
Forward Jiri Hudler agreed that the focus must be inward.
“It’s a good conference but they’re not going to move us somewhere else because of that,” he said. “We’re 5-5 (5-4-1) in our last 10 games. It’s definitely better than how we started, but (5-4-1) is not going to take us where we want to be.”
In many respects, the Flames’ current predicament is one most analysts expected last season for a team that had jettisoned mainstays like Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Mike Cammalleri. Then the Flames altered their arc by finishing third in the Pacific, dumping Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs and adding a couple good pieces this offseason in defenseman Dougie Hamilton and versatile forward Michael Frolik, whom Treliving describes as a Swiss Army knife.
“I think that teams are focusing a lot more on us,” coach Bob Hartley said. “They’re more prepared. Early on, I notice a big difference from last year.”
Treliving went deeper with that analysis.
“I don’t think teams prepare any less but I think it happens subconsciously,” he said. “You prepare for every game but if you have the Stanley Cup champions or a playoff team coming in you’re like, ‘OK. Time to get ready.’
“I also think teams look at us differently than last year for another reason. They say, ‘here are the eight teams that were in the playoffs last year. How do you make the playoffs? You have to knock one of those eight off’ and I think everybody is looking at us as one of those teams they’ve got to knock out.”
The easy critique of the Flames points to their goaltending. Through Thursday’s games, Calgary sat dead last in the NHL in goals against average at 3.55, and save percentage (.880). Calgary has tried Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio at various points this season, but none had much success until Ramo put together five games in his last six with a save percentage of .900 or better.
Calgary is only allowing one more shot per game than last year, but as Treliving noted, the shots are of a higher quality.
“It’s not like somebody’s getting lazy around here or the work ethic is not there,” Hudler said. “Some games it just hasn’t bounced our way and last year it did. We are working hard but you need to be smart, too. You need to create and you need to play good defensively. We need to play tighter.”
Hamilton’s addition was supposed to help in that regard, but like most of the Flames, he has been hit and miss this season.
“Everybody was saying ‘oh, you got him, you’re going to be that much better’ but I’ve tried to hammer home that this is a 22-year old defenseman. It was unfair to place those expectations all on him,” Treliving said. “He had all that stuff around him, too with a new contract, everyone saying he was going to take us to the next level and then (defenseman) T.J. (Brodie) got hurt so he’s playing with Gio (Mark Giordano) and bouncing all around.”
The simple fact for Calgary, Treliving said, is that a lot of the key players it relies on are young players who are still trying to establish that elusive quality that defines the elite: consistency.
“We came into the season with a lot of expectations because we had a lot of people picking us to be right back in the playoff pack this year,” Treliving said. “That was a concern. At the same time, you want that. If you want to be good at some point you should have expectations.”
The Flames are still figuring out how to meet those expectations.
“We can circle the wagon as much as we want but we just didn’t start the right way and there’s no excuse for this,” Hartley said. “It’s on us.”
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