SUN Hockey Pool

Flames still have tough road to hoe

Flames forward Brendan Morrison skates with head coach Brent Sutter during practice in Calgary,...

Flames forward Brendan Morrison skates with head coach Brent Sutter during practice in Calgary, Alta., Oct. 17, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI Agency)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:53 AM ET

CALGARY - You bet the Calgary Flames know how daunting their next couple of games are away from home.

With five-sevenths of their season-long road trip in the books, the Flames are staring at the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins to close it out.

The Capitals were wildly inconsistent earlier this season to the point they fired head coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with Dale Hunter, but they’ve turned things around.

Going into Tuesday tilt (5 p.m., Sportsnet West, Sportsnet 960), the Capitals have won three straight and collected seven wins in their last 11 outings.

As for the Bruins, they’re rocketing up the standings and starting to look like true Stanley Cup champs.

They're not exactly what a team which has dropped three straight is hoping to challenge right now.

Or is it?

“Prior to the (Christmas) break, when we played the so-called better teams, the teams that are a little higher in the standings, we’ve risen to the challenge,” said Flames centre Brendan Morrison, alluding to the club's wins over the Minnesota Wild, the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks. “We’re having issues with teams that are grouped with us or below us — that’s been our Achilles heel.”

In theory, the Capitals are in the same boat as the Flames. The Caps are mere one point ahead of the Flames in the NHL's overall standings. However, the club pegged as a Cup contender prior to the season has played three fewer games and is starting to match the expectations placed upon it.

The Flames are struggling, especially when it comes to their defensive play with a couple of key blueliners in Mark Giordano and Derek Smith out of action due to injury.

“Washington is an offensive team, and if you have breakdowns, they can put the puck in the net,” said Flames defenceman Scott Hannan, who spent most of last season with the Capitals. “Same thing with Boston. They’ve been playing great. We’ve got to be on our game to beat them.”

Making this three-game losing skid all the more frustrating is the fact the Flames had early leads in every outing only to see them disappear.

“It’s being mentally ready,” Hannan said. “It’s tough when you’re on the road and playing as many games as we’ve played, but that’s the name of the game. You’ve got to be mentally strong — be focused on what you’ve got to do.

“You’re not going to feel it every night. You’re not going to play your best — pucks will bounce on you. But if you play a good structured game, you can take care of it. Respond properly, and things won’t go badly.”

But the wrong direction appears to be the route the Flames are heading after teasing their fans by pulling within a couple of points of a playoff spot.

“We know we can be a good team, and we believe we can be a playoff team,” said Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who needs one more goal for 500 in his career. “We have to find ways to be better on the road. When we’ve turned it around this season, we’ve played with the puck — been a puck-control team — all of us. Other times, we’ve been antsy. The road is where we need it to improve.

“If it’s a seven-game road trip, we’re pretty much .500. We still have an opportunity to be over .500. It’s not going to be easy, but we can still do it,” Iginla continued.

“If we’re there after these seven games, that’s not too bad with a lot of home games coming.”

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNRandySportak


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