SUN Hockey Pool

New era 1, Flames 0

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

The current three-game losing skid that's sending Calgary Flames fans into a panic is merely highlighting the cracks that have been there since Day 1.

Even during the team's four-game winning spree with which they started the season.

Don't despair, though -- they'll pull out of the losing skid soon enough.

More important is how quickly they adjust and buy into the style of play that wins games in today's NHL.

That's the approach new head coach Brent Sutter is trying to sell them.

As much as fans romanticize the 2004 team that was within one game -- one inch, actually, or one blown call, depending how you see it -- of winning the Stanley Cup, it was a squad which knew how to take advantage of the waning days of the clutch-and-grab era.

Since the lockout, the Flames have struggled to grasp the new game.

The game plan coming out of the work stoppage was still to counter-attack.

Trapping still was key, and clubs tried scoring by taking advantage of odd-man rushes off turnovers.

The Flames added offensive players such as Kristian Huselius and Alex Tanguay, and it helped them be competitive, but still unable to get over the hump.

Now, teams in the copycat NHL are trying to win more with attacking than counter-attacking. It requires more work at both ends of the rink, and the Flames aren't yet committed to it.

The Flames weren't a team willing to don the work boots needed to be strong defensively the past few years. It's no shock they are struggling to play a game that requires more determination now.

"You can't shut a team down by counter-attacking anymore," said Columbus bench boss Hitchcock, who was known as a trap coach.

"There's too much ability for the players to get in on the forecheck without getting held up. There's too many penalties that get called when you try playing a counter-attack game.

"You have to keep going at people for 60 minutes. That's a very difficult way for players, but they have to learn to do it."

Sound familiar Flames fans?

One trend we've seen nearly every outing this season is the Flames starting strong. In nearly every game, they've been the better team out of the blocks. Calgary has outscored their opponents 12-6 in first periods.

However, they've not been able to maintain that edge.

Of course teams will push back, but the Flames have been guilty of pulling back, which led to their blown-lead losses at Chicago and Columbus.

"The minute you pull back and play a counter-attack game, you're gonna get burned," Hitchcock said.

"You can't play the score, play the game. It doesn't take months, it takes years for teams to learn to play that way and be that confident to play that way."

People may not want to hear it, but the Flames are currently going through a major learning curve.

They should have morphed their game to the up-tempo style over the past couple of seasons, but lacked the structure or belief in the coaching staff for it to happen.

Now, Sutter has the task of converting a whole team of players to a wolf-pack mentality.

Fans have to be patient with the process, even if it's hard to do while paying top dollar for tickets to watch a team go through growing pains. In the end, it will be worth it.

The Devils floundered the first couple of months Sutter was in New Jersey.

However, once they grasped what Sutter wanted, they shot up the Eastern Conference standings.

Last season, the Devils won 51 games, despite missing Martin Brodeur for months and with less talent -- at least on paper -- than the Flames possess.

Eventually, they either figured it out, or the brass found players who could.

The same thing will happen in Calgary, too.

First Sutter has to break down the old ways. Then, he'll build them up.

This week's losses -- especially the Windy City meltdown -- will help the process.

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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