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'REACH THAT NEXT LEVEL'

Flames focused on using practice this week to get back on track

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Eat. Sleep. Battle. Repeat. 

For the past four months, it's been the mantra for these Flames.

Their bread and butter. 

The reason they had such a great start and currently sit second in the Pacific on point percentage. 

Now, having returned home on the heels of three consecutive losses, they know they need to get back to that level and re-establish that identity - that pace - to once again grab hold and dictate games, from beginning to end. 

"That's one thing that Darryl talks a lot about," said Milan Lucic. "Pace, execution, quickness. 

"It's not only about moving your feet or skating - it's how fast the puck moves. It's passing. It's moving up the ice, moving as a five-man group in all three zones.

"I know this … The pace that those three teams (Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina) play at, that's a Stanley Cup Final-type of pace. I've been fortunate enough to play at that level, at that pace, and that's the pace we need to get to if we want to reach that next level."

 

Video: "We know what level we need to reach"

 

With almost a full week between games and hours of practice lined up to work on theirt game, it's clear what the priority is. The Flames had a 45-minute sweat on Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome, and focused the entire session on checking, defensive-zone structure, and one-on-one battles. 

As Head Coach Darryl Sutter explained, it was important to "get that back" after what has been a tumultuous, month-long stretch. 

They went from the entire team getting COVID to immediately hitting the road again for five straight on the other side of the continent.

It hasn't been easy.

Still, the Flames went toe-to-toe with three of the top four teams on the circuit. The results - admittedly - were mixed, but did show they could hang with those clubs and have stretches where they were the aggressor, elevating their game and establishing the forecheck that's led to their success this year. 

A sublime first period in Raleigh, where they out-shot the Hurricanes 21-10 was all the evidence you need. That, against a team that gives up less anyone else in the league.

Or, when they piled a season-high 49 shots on Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, in Game 2 of the four-night swing. 

The pieces were there. 

Now, it's about maintaining that while cleaning up the lapses that ultimately proved costly. 

Getting back in a rhythm should help. 

"I think you've got to park those distractions and get them out of the way," Sutter said. "And we've had a lot of them.

"We had the (COVID) break, then with the Christmas break, then not being sure of your schedule and going to Florida ... All those things. 

"I think if you can eliminate the distractions and get back to the basics of it as best that you can, it helps us handle it."

 

Video: Coach with his thoughts on practice priorities

 

And that - truly - is the pilgrimage that good teams embark on as they chase 
down a championship.

Rarely is the path linear. 

"If you look at it from a positive (perspective), we now know what level we need to reach if we want to be like those teams," Lucic said. "You've got to give the other teams credit, too. That's what they do well and that's why they're really good hockey teams. (But) that's something that we do well and something that has made us a good hockey team throughout the season so far.

"We've got to find that again.

"It's easy to have excuses. It's easy to say we've played five games in the last month. It's easy to say break this, break that, or whatever this and whatever that. But we know it's there. We know we have it. We know we're good enough ... and we've got to believe in that again."

Sutter has been the head coach of this team for 10 months now, and one thing is abundantly clear about his methods. His practices are direct, focused, and there's never any wasted movement or time spent at the whiteboard.

Certainly, the players would like to be playing games - "It almost feels like we're in our third training camp now," Lucic laughed - but the increased practice time will hopefully become a net benefit. 

What the Flames know now is that they will host the Ottawa Senators on Thursday at the Scotiabank Saddledome. 

Next, the Panthers will visit the following Tuesday before getting another stretch of three days off. 

But we know what lingers on the other side. It promises to be hectic, with 49 games left on the docket and only a few short months to accommodate. 

It's best to have their game in order as quickly as possible.

"You've got to take the positives out of it," Lucic said. "You've got to look forward to getting better every single day. 

"It's a good time to reset. … We've lost three in a row, so it's a good time to get better and that's what we need to do over these next three days.

"Get better and get our game back to where it needs to be to win hockey games."

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