We were on top of the world. We had just won the first three games of the season, and everything about the Detroit Red Wings was rosy and bright, and the optimism was overflowing. There were concerns, of course, because Detroit didn't win those three games in 10-0 shutouts, but six out of a possible six points had plenty of people rightly celebrating and excited for the team.
Another three games later, and much of the optimism has faded. It's not turned into outright pessimism or cynicism about the rest of the season, but the honeymoon phase for new coach Jeff Blashill and the new rookie in Dylan Larkin is done. Now the team needs wins.
This kind of swing comes with the territory of being a hockey fan. Surely the players and Blashill are fans of themselves and fans of winning, so regardless of what image they display in public, they're probably stewing about losing three games in a row after getting off to a great start.
Blashill in particular must struggle with these emotions. It's his job to not give in to them. Doing his job right means that sometimes there's a disconnect between the results on the ice and his overall outlook of the team after a certain game. It's why, after Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, he could tell the media with a straight face, "I thought in large parts tonight we played (well)."
"Do we need to continue to get better? Absolutely," Blashill continued. "Are the results good enough? No. But again, I thought there were a lot of areas we took in the right direction and now we got to get better on Friday."
Tonight is his and the Red Wings' chance to show they've gotten better, and there's really not a better opponent for it to happen against.
The Calgary Flames are bad. All caveats about sample size taken into consideration, the Flames are 29th in the league at the moment with just two points from a win in their second game of the season. (By some miracle, the Columbus Blue Jackets still sit pointless, giving the Flames some cushion between themselves and the true league basement.) Their counting stats are putrid, considering their minus-13 goal differential through six games means they're giving up an average of two more goals per game than they're scoring.
Their nontraditional metrics look bad as well. Search "CGY" on this link, and you'll see that, for most of the first six games of this season, the Flames were routinely out-possessed and out-scoring-chanced. Their goaltenders gave them no help, with Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo both contributing sub-.880 save percentages in 5-on-5 play. Ramo, in particular, was placed on waivers earlier this week. Bad goaltending combined with an inability to keep the puck and take more chances than your opponent leads to your team being in the league cellar.
Against a team that gives up more opportunities than it takes, Blashill and the Red Wings should see their strategies generate more offense than they have been able to in the games against the Carolina Hurricanes or Montreal Canadiens. Jimmy Howard should be solid, but against a team like Calgary, he shouldn't have to steal this game for the team. The Red Wings should come out of this game confident that they did all the right things and that they're on track with how they'd like their "game" to progress.
All of this, funnily enough, isn't to say that the Red Wings should win tonight's game no matter what. Individual hockey games will always live in small sample sizes, so anything can happen. We're at a part of the season where we have the luxury of not worrying too much (yet) about wins and losses.
But if one of the biggest concerns with the Red Wings in the first six games of the season so far is that they're spending too much time in their own zone and not generating enough offensive opportunities, this game is the perfect measuring stick to see how well "the process" is working for Jeff Blashill and the Red Wings.