“There’s a time where you’re not even sure you’re a part of the league, the way the schedule is.”
That pretty much sums it up. Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter did not mince words on Thursday, Jan. 20 when asked how the NHL’s wildly unbalanced schedule has affected his squad over the past month. Yes, a lot of other teams have had to endure a whole whack of postponed games, but the Flames have been one of the hardest hit in the entire league and Sutter had plenty to say about it.
“At the end of it, the way the schedule’s been… It’s been really hard to get any continuity”, Sutter told reporters. “So, its been hard to get into any routine or rhythm. I know from being a player that you don’t like practicing four days in a row or you don’t like taking three days in a row off. It’s the worst thing for you as an athlete, and we’ve had to endure that how many times? And I know that’s how it’s affected them.”
Sutter Hopes Practicing “With Game Pace” Can Replicate Game Action
Coming out of COVID-19 protocols in late December, the team had a grueling schedule; playing five times in nine nights. Since then, more postponements due to capacity restrictions have seen the Flames only suit up twice in the past two weeks. Not surprisingly, Calgary has had a losing record since the entire organization was completely overrun with positive cases in mid-December and getting the group back to game speed with mostly practices at their disposal has been a major challenge.
“It’s important because we’re not playing enough games and you have to play at game pace”, Sutter said. “So the guys understand and they practice pace all the time, but the key with pace is the execution of it. Anybody can skate fast but you have to be able to do with the puck and make the next play. When our games dropped off, that’s when (our pace) dropped off. We’re not making the play to kill the play, we’re not making the play to make the next play. So, you have to be able to do it at game speed.”
After Saturday night’s tilt against the Oilers in Edmonton, the Flames are heading into another busy stretch, so Sutter knows keeping his squad up to speed with very little practice time will be crucial as the team enters the second half of the regular season after the upcoming All-Star break. And speaking of that second half, the NHL finally released Calgary’s revamped schedule and, not surprisingly, it’s very home-heavy for the next couple of months.
The Flames’ Playoff Hopes Will be Decided in February and March
The Flames endured a very road-heavy start to their 2021-22 schedule, and if you tack on the Omicron outbreak and arena capacity restriction postponements, it all added up to Calgary playing just 13 games at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It’s been tough sledding for the boys in red to establish any kind of routine or rhythm on home ice this year, and their mediocre 5-4-4 record at the Dome certainly reflects that. No NHL team has fewer home wins, so Sutter knows his team has to take advantage of a friendlier schedule.
“We can say February, March look like good schedules because they are home-based schedules. You can say that for the first time this year,” the Flames head coach told reporters. “Then April is a hard schedule again because there are a lot of road games with travel… We want to play well going into the All-Star break because I think our season will probably be decided, then, in February and March.”
Talking about Saturday night’s game at Rogers Place, Sutter told the media that he’s not taking the slumping Oilers lightly, as they’ve had a similar experience with an unpredictable schedule and a boatload of postponed games. He has them slotted with the Vegas Golden Knights as a top-two team in the Pacific Division and thinks the rest of the division are all battling for third place.
“We’re all fighting for that third spot. You start screwing around with wildcards, then you’re fooling around with the Central Division. That’s not what you want to do because of disparity in games. You screw around with the wildcard, then either you’re in or you’re out,” Sutter said. “I can explain that to the team because I’ve been on the wrong side of that. I’ve been on teams 15 games over .500 and miss (the playoffs) by two points. You’re only guaranteed one, two, three. After that, you start flipping coins with that wildcard stuff.”
With all of the questions about the Flames’ revamped schedule finally answered, the team can now focus on improving their overall game and recapturing some of that early season momentum that saw them on top of the Western Conference. Having six or seven games at hand on their divisional rivals and a the comforts of “Dome Sweet Dome” for much of the next two months could go a long way to getting back in sync.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.