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'THAT'S A CHALLENGE'

Coach Sutter talks about difficulty of settling into a groove with current gaps between games

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Every good team goes through a tough stretch. 

Right now, the Flames are living theirs. 

With four consecutive losses and eight of 10 overall dating back to Dec. 5, head coach Darryl Sutter didn't mince words following Thursday night's 4-1 home loss to Ottawa.

The "emotion" - the investment in the game - has been missing of late, he said.

And it's time to get back it back. 

"I don't think they've fallen into it," Sutter stressed, commenting on the assertion of 'bad habits' creeping into the team's game. "But it's something that can regress. 

"You've got to keep your finger on it and make sure that everybody is aware of it, and challenge each other to take that next step again."

When Sutter was hired last year, he immediately identified some areas of improvement. Among them, the need for this team to play as a group and not rely on a handful of players to carry the mail.

Alone. 

"And they didn't," Sutter explained, "everybody thought there was something wrong with them. 

"We don't have that type of player (where) you can get away with having that total investment every night. On some clubs you can get away with it. But our club can't. And it shows."

The process of changing that and becoming a Cup contender is not linear.

Just look at the Carolina Hurricanes. Or the Florida Panthers. Or the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning. All of whom the Flames lost to last week, but have experienced their own set of troubles at different points in the season. 

The 'Canes have lost two straight since, including a 6-0 beatdown to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. The Bolts, meanwhile, suffered a 9-3 loss to the Panthers a week prior to their tussle with the locals, igniting a season-high three-game skid. 

While Sutter wouldn't say it's "common" for teams to experience a prolonged period of struggle, it can be seen as a 'write of passage' - if you can revert back to what's made you successful in the past. 

That's goal for the Flames right now. 

"From the coaching side, do you like that to happen? No," he said. "But your foundation keeps your structure, keeps your base of how you need to play and that's the reinforcement you have to have. 

"My concern is that we're not playing enough games to maintain that or make sure it's in order. 

"And that's a challenge."

Win or lose, that's the reality facing not only the Flames, but all seven Canadian teams right now, with capacity restrictions postponing a number of home dates. 

The Flames were coming off a six-day break last night. They now have another four days off before their next tilt with Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennett and the Panthers in what should be a spirited rematch. 

Then, they get another three days off before returning to the sheet on Jan. 22 in Edmonton. 

If you lose, there's nothing you want more than to get right back out there and make amends. And if you win, you want to keep up the momentum and settle into a rhythm.

In the absence of that, the Flames need to make the most of their practice time and re-discover the 'investment' that made them a force to be reckoned with earlier in the season.

If Friday's workout is any indication, they're off to a good start. 

The sharpness was there, the energy was high and some of the snake-bitten forwards were sniping away and finding their confidence. 

Where it takes them is entirely in their control. 

"I've said this many times," the coach explained. "It was automatic from outside the organization that they were going to win those two rounds and do this and that, and the way they were going to do it, they were going to outscore their opponent. And now when the team struggles, it's, 'Why can't you score?'

"Scoring is about having the ability to score. The structure of our team has allowed that this year. 

"Look at Johnny (Gaudreau). Look at Matthew (Tkachuk). Look at (Elias Lindholm). It's allowed them to be more productive. If you have the ability to score, you're going to. 

"When you say, 'How do you learn that?' Some of that is personnel related, but a lot of it has to do with maximizing your skill-set."

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