Flames’ Current Road Trip Will Be Character-Defining

The Calgary Flames are currently not where many fans and experts projected them to be after the historic offseason they had. They currently sit fifth in the Pacific Division with a 7-7-2 record, and if the playoffs began today, they would be on the outside looking in as the rival Edmonton Oilers and the Nashville Predators currently occupy the West’s two wild card spots. They are also losing points on the road, where they are 1-3-1. They need some puck luck and better performances from their netminders if they want to climb up the rankings and secure their spot in the playoffs. Fortunately for the Flames, they are on a six-game road trip through the Eastern Conference and have a great opportunity to try and figure themselves out.

MacKenzie Weegar Calgary Flames
MacKenzie Weegar, Calgary Flames (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Flames have already unfortunately dropped the first leg of their trip to the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 4-1. Next, they face the Florida Panthers on Saturday followed by the Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins, ending off with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes on a back-to-back. This road trip offers the team an outstanding opportunity to test their mettle against some top-tier teams as well as gain some valuable points and try to kickstart a change in play for the rest of the season.

A Florida Homecoming

As previously mentioned, the introductory game against the Lightning was a wash. As comes naturally on these trips, the Panthers come next. This will not just be another game, however, as it will serve as the first time the two teams have met since the huge offseason trade between them involving Matthew Tkachuk, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mackenzie Weegar, among others. Huberdeau was drafted by and played the first ten seasons of his career with the Panthers, ditto for Weegar except he spent six seasons in the Sunshine State. It will be the first time they will play as opponents in the FLA Live Arena, and in addition, it will be the first time Tkachuk plays his old teammates. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how or if Huberdeau and Weegar step their game up, as well as how the rest of the Flames will rally in their honour.

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The Panthers will also serve as a great test for the Flames, as they boast a solid home record and are the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners. Their new head coach Paul Maurice employs a style of play that concedes a decent amount of shots on goal, something that the Flames have been very successful in generating. They just fired 40 at the Lightning and average 36.3 per contest. Darryl Sutter’s squad has been doing a solid job of limiting opponents’ shots, but the duo of Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar have been struggling, something Markstrom admitted to the media after the Lightning game.

Pennsylvanian Teams Also Missing Expectations

The Flyers and Penguins are next, and both teams have nearly identical records to the Flames at this point of the season at 7-7-3 apiece. They also similarly both came into the year expecting different results than what they have achieved thus far. The Flyers were assumed to be a basement dweller given how badly they finished the previous season and not making many moves in the offseason; however, under new coach John Tortorella they have stayed in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins, on the other hand, are in an almost identical situation to the Flames as they were thought to be in contention for a deep playoff run given the addition of rearguard Jeff Petry and the re-signings of longtime vets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers still have a tough time generating offence, only potting 42 goals as a team thus far, which seats them at second-last in that category. Their defense is not as individually talented as the Flames’, and Tortorella’s system is also bleeding shots on goal. They have instead been backed by a resurgent Carter Hart in net, who has bailed them out of plenty of games with a 2.55 goals-against average (GAA) and .925 save percentage (SV%).

The Penguins have sputtered much like the Flames, and perhaps one of their issues is that they have played 11 of their 17 games on the road. Their issue has also been goaltending, as starter Tristan Jarry has authoured a 3.60 GAA and a .895 SV% through ten appearances. They still employ one of the best players on the planet in Sidney Crosby, and other stars like Jake Guentzel as well as the aforementioned Malkin and Letang, so taking them lightly is not an option.

Back-to-Back Opposites

The Capitals and Hurricanes find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. Alex Ovechkin and company have seemingly suffered with the loss of star centre Nicklas Backstrom in addition to wingers Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie, and have limped to a 7-9-3 record through 19 games. They currently rank fourth in man-games lost with 66, meaning once they are healthy they should have a better on-ice product. For now, they serve as the best opportunity for two points for the Flames on this trip. However, the Hurricanes are a different story; they are third in the East and sixth in league-wide standings with a 10-5-2 record. They are pretty level playing at home or away, and have a solid team led offensively by stars Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Martin Necas.

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The Flames and Hurricanes have very comparable defensive cores as well, with immense talent on each pairing. They made waves by acquiring star defenceman Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks and already enlisted two of the more underrated defensemen in the league in Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin. They also deploy one of the better goaltending tandems in the NHL with Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta tending their crease. They stand as the toughest test of the trip, and every game on the end of a back-to-back is always strenuous due to the fatigue of having just played.

All in all, the Flames are playing .500 hockey and things could be a lot worse. These five games will not make or break them but offer a fine time to overcome early adversity and establish more of an identity. They have to play two middling teams, one losing team, and two stronger teams that all play different brands of hockey. If the goaltending sharpens up and the pucks continue to fly on opposing nets, they should be just fine. If they can grab some wins on this trip, they will ideally be better suited for the remainder of the season.