That cold, bracing slap that jarred a city out of its wistful hockey daydream?
It’s called ... reality.
“Everyone was telling us how good we are (before the trip), and people will probably tell us how bad we are now,” defenceman Shane O’Brien said late Thursday night in Dallas “It was a tough road trip. We obviously didn’t have the success we wanted to.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s a tough league. It’s hard to win in this league, especially on the road. But, like I said, we’re still the same team we were when we got off to that good start. We’re going to learn from this.
“I don’t think there’s any need to push the panic button or anything like that.
“We’re a .500 hockey team heading home, so we’ll see what we can do with it.”
Admit it, if anyone had predicted that the Calgary Flames would be as high as break-even, 4-4-2, at the 10-game mark of the first year of this rebuild, they’d have been strip-searched and shipped off to Happydale Sanatarium.
Those first five games (3-0-2) flew by as if in a dream. A couple of squandered leads, yes, but they could be chalked off primarily to inexperience. Besides, so much was going so right. Freshman Sean Monahan playing out of his 19-year-old skin, scoring goals at a dizzying Stamkos-like rate. Skipper Mark Giordano picking up the extinguished torch left by Jarome Iginla and igniting his own flame. Dennis Wideman conjuring distant echoes of his salad days in Boston. Jiri Hudler doing more delightful deceits with a puck than Steve McQueen with a deck of cards in The Cincinnati Kid. Good-enough goaltending. No end of pluck. The element of surprise.
It all seemed to good to be true.
Well, it was.
Wily ol’ Bob Hartley, understanding that nothing less than a fairly positive start stood between his wet-behind-the-ears group and potential implosion, put the Flames through the most taxing training camp anyone involved could recall. As the rest of the league begins to catch up conditioning-wise, though, the tables were sure to turn.
The just-completed road swing, a gauntlet of terror, was advertised pre-departure as a kind of polygraph test. If so, they flunked.
The Flames left from Calgary International Airport on Oct. 16 basking in the sort of soft, warm glow that all early surprise packages do, and returned early Friday in the dead of night, one win in five tries, on the hook for the second-highest goals-allowed total in the league, seated 11th in the Western Conference.
“Well, we need to be better defensively,” said Hartley. “I kind of knew that. That’s our challenge — to become a better team defensively, to read the game, to communicate the game in a better way. Those five games, they showed us that we have a lot to learn.”
Desperately unlucky in Anaheim, wildly undisciplined in San Jose, competitively unreal in L.A., somewhat unconvincing in Phoenix and completely unhinged in Dallas:
The Coles Notes version of a road trip gone awry.
“In Phoenix we’re right in the game, we tie it up late, and same thing, a breakdown,” said T.J. Galiardi with a grumble. “Give them a goal and, just like that, you get zero points in a game where we battled back and showed heart again. I think we just had poor starts every game on the trip, whereas at home and before that, early in the year, we were jumping all over teams right away. We’ve got to find a way to get back to that.”
“The main thing I think we’ve got to take away from (the trip) is momentum swings,” said O’Brien. “When something goes bad, we’ve got to find a way to stick together and make sure it doesn’t get worse.
“The biggest shift of a game is when you score a goal or you get scored on. So we just have to realize that, either way, if we score one or get scored on, that next shift has got to be the best shift of the night. As veteran guys, it’s our job to … when we see things like that happening, to put a stop to it as quickly as we can. It was a snowball effect and before you know it, it’s 4-1, 5-1, and the game’s over.”
That snowball effect, and how it can bury you, should’ve come back to haunt their dreams Friday, what with Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in to pay a visit. The Caps, remember, fell behind 3-0 in Calgary’s season opener at the Verizon Center, before The Great 8 personally took the game over, consigning the Flames to a 5-4 OT loss.
Despite the disappointment of the past five games, nothing really has been lost because, as promising as that start proved to be, the rebuild has only just begun.
“It’s just not good enough,” said Hartley of the slippage. “We racked up eight of the first 10 points. Now we just got two of the last 10. Obviously, we can’t be happy with this. We look by (five-game) segments. Our first segment was very good. Our second segment, well, it’s not what we were looking for at all. We have to bounce back, making sure that we’re staying in the pack.”
They still appear to be ahead of schedule, these Flames, in spite of the disappointment and frustration returned with from the road. There are reasons for optimism. They play hard, for one thing, and that makes up for a lot (and cannot be allowed to lessen, or otherwise this could go to hell in a hand basket, in a hurry).
For those who had momentarily lost sight of the fact, it remains a long, difficult process and the glare of some early-season surprises should never have blinded anyone to that certainty.
With that first blush of surprising success behind them, a true gauge of where they are and what’s needed most can from here on in commence.
That brief, blissful honeymoon has ended. The drudgery of day-to-day living is at hand.
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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