Big road trip may reveal if Flames are for real

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True, we’re still in “it’s early” territory. That essential caveat aside, the Calgary Flames mostly passed their early tests, carving out a 7-2-3 record. They’re in a strong playoff position right now, and a Pacific Division title cannot be ruled out.

Considering how much of a funk the Flames have been in, this is no small feat. Arguably, things rarely felt right ever since Nathan MacKinnon and the not-yet-powerhouse Avs schooled them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season represented a profound low, with the Flames missing the playoffs, and seemingly running out of ideas when they brought back Darryl Sutter.

Except … the Darryl Sutter experiment looks really good so far.

[Where Flames sit in latest PHT Power Rankings]

Whether you prefer sheer shot volume, high-danger chances, or expected goals, the Flames rank as a top-10 team five-on-five. A lot of times, they’re top five. In some cases, best in the NHL.

In other words, the Flames aren’t just enjoying great results. Most signs point to their process being sound. While the bounces of this sport — hot streaks, injuries, COVID outbreaks — might sink Calgary for a while, it sure seems like they’ve built a foundation for success.

Of course, things can change in a heartbeat. That’s doubly true in a sport of small margins like hockey.

Which brings us to a key moment: the Flames begin a lengthy seven-game road trip when they face the Canadiens in Montreal on Thursday. Consider it a challenge, and also an opportunity to provide themselves.

Challenges, opportunities for Flames during seven-game road trip

First, take a look at the basics of the Flames’ seven-game road trip:

Thu, Nov. 11

@ Montreal

Fri, Nov. 12

@ Toronto

Sun, Nov. 14

@ Ottawa

Tue, Nov. 16

@ Philadelphia

Thu, Nov. 18

@ Buffalo

Sat, Nov. 20

@ Islanders

Sun, Nov. 21

@ Boston

The Flames’ seven-game road trip includes two back-to-back sets. In general, it’s a loaded schedule, with no more than one day between any two games.

Perhaps fittingly, the road-tested Islanders will host the Flames to open their new building. Maybe they can get Shaq to be there, and once again impress* their mascot:

Looking at their season so far, the Flames have actually been more impressive on the road (5-1-0) than at home (2-1-3). They aced their first real road trip of the season, winning all five games during a swing. That probably explains why the Flames gave some optimistic quotes heading into this seven-game road trip.

“That first road trip was big, to get together and have some dinners and hang around,” Elias Lindholm said, via the Calgary Sun’s Kristen Anderson. “The results came as well and we had a good road trip. We’ve been building on that.”

Sounds nice, but such journeys are always more fulfilling when you’re winning. This seven-game road trip is the longest of the Flames’ season, and could serve daunting.

Flames Nation’s Ryan Pike looked at the recent history of Flames long road trips, and found them to be largely unsuccessful. In at least one case, a big road trip was the last straw for a tough Flames season.

So there’s a chance that the Flames might reach a low point during this seven-game odyssey, or at least lose some momentum. Arguably, they may already have, being that Calgary dropped three of its last four games (1-1-2).

* That cute dragon is in awe of Shaq in your headcanon, too, right?

Some breathers for the big guy?

If you brought up the idea of “load management” to Darryl Sutter, he might ask if you’re talking about errands around the farm. He’s an old-school coach, and more often than not, old-school coaches lean heavily on workhorse goalies.

That said, this seven-game road trip could be an opportunity to see how the Flames play when Jacob Markstrom‘s resting on the bench (probably wearing a baseball cap).

So far this season, Markstrom’s played 10 games, while Daniel Vladar‘s appeared in just two. Markstrom’s been splendid (.940 save percentage), and Vladar has been … not (.891). It’s easy to see why Sutter leans on Markstrom — even beyond the team’s investment in the $6M goalie.

With two back-to-backs and seven road games in that 10-day run, the Flames would play with fire if they don’t give Markstrom some breaks.

Besides, Markstrom’s almost 32 (Jan. 31 birthday), and he’s one of the larger goalies in the NHL. At his best, he’s elite. Why not give yourself the best possible odds to maintain that elite work?

During this seven-game road trip, the Flames could apply similar logic to other spots. Want to take a look at a young player or two? Try them out during one of two back-to-back games. Curious if someone can thrive with more minutes? Moving shifts around could be more diplomatic than a healthy scratch.

In the grand scheme of things, the Flames’ road trip is a chapter, rather than the book. But it could reveal some twists, and maybe shape the larger narrative.

More hockey news

It is not time to worry about the Avalanche (yet) Ducks’ Troy Terry has been surprising offensive star of NHL season Rick Bowness confident he can fix Stars’ early-season woes

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Big road trip may reveal if Flames are for real originally appeared on NBCSports.com