Red October

Rick Charlton

October 23th, 2001

A point here.

A point there.

Pretty soon you're talking real money.

Playoff money that is.

As the Calgary Flames continue their unexpected and frantic climb to stratospheric heights early this NHL season it is finally worth taking a gander in the rear view mirror to see who might be following.

Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit and San Jose are not among the teams Calgary needs to care about. All those names will be there for post-season play when April comes around, regardless of what Calgary might be doing.

Flames 3 Blues 2 \ Game Night: Calgary at Chicago

Of the teams that will ultimately matter to the Flames, only Edmonton and, strangely, Chicago are within hailing distance. The list of teams, which can be officially classified, as "in trouble" are the right ones as far as the Flames are concerned.

Two playoff teams from last year, LA and Vancouver as well as the near miss Predators, are rapidly disappearing in a cloud of dust, now an incredible ten points in arrears for the Canucks, an equally back-breaking nine for the Kings and a not surprising nine for the Predators.

It may still be early but its not too early to say those ten points might never be made up, even with nine-tenths of the schedule still to go. The Flames, victims of innumerable poor October's in the past, are experts on the topic themselves.

The malaise afflicting the Kings isn't particularly surprising. As we noted in the pre-season preview, LA lost Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake and therefore would need continued strong play from Felix Potvin to simply match last season's playoff run. But Potvin's performance to date has been spotty and the Kings, somewhat average at best these days, will need above average goaltending for 82 games just to qualify this year.

The disintegration of the Canucks is now becoming an interesting case study in team dynamics that has some seriously familiar overtones.

When the Flames faltered out of the gate last season, the collapse started in net and then worked its way out into the rest of the lineup. Poor goaltending leads to defencemen trying to do things they shouldn't be doing, which in turn leads teammates being lured out of position because they don't trust their peers to do the job. A good team becomes a group of individuals and a squad that looks theoretically good on paper begins to collapse.

The Canucks are a good team on paper.

But young netminder Dan Cloutier, the weight of the franchise on his shoulders, has turned in more poor games than good ones and backup Martin Brochu has been unable to stem the tide.

It would be hypocritical of me to predict the ascension of Calgary's youngsters while denying the same privilege to the Canucks stable of terrific young forwards. The Canucks should be better

But goaltending can make good teams bad just as easily as the reverse.

The Predators were another team that was supposed to challenge for a playoff spot although I was not on the bandwagon myself. Aside from great goaltending, Nashville has a great coach, a great team concept and a lot of spare parts and wannabe's. The same accusation has been leveled at the Flames but there is no Jarome Iginla or Derek Morris in Nashville. All things being equal, Calgary should have an easy leg up on the Predators when all is said and done.

And so the Flames find themselves in the unfamiliar spot of putting three teams they needed to bury early, the Canucks, Kings and Predators, under their heel out of the gate. They've opened up two playoff spots and a lot of room between themselves and the only teams that might threaten their aspirations in the end.

Of those teams that are still close, the Oilers were there last year anyway so they aren't a particular concern if simply reoccupying their familiar perch in the post-season. Maybe the Hawks are the real deal, which would also be a surprise, but there figures to be an extra seat anyway. Minnesota is simply hard to take seriously, even given their nice start. Gravity should eventually kick in.

It's not so much the Flames are off to a great start as it is the teams they need to fight for a playoff spot are failing to keep up, losing hard to replace points in the early going and causing panic to already spread through those lineups.

Although there is a lot of hockey left, Calgary is finally in the driver's seat it has long coveted.

IS IT JUST ME OR ARE WE SEEING A LITTLE BIT OF DOUG GILMOUR coming out in Craig Conroy? Although the new Flames centre isn't the mean, vicious little puke - admirable traits in a hockey player - that Gilmour was in his prime, his surprising offensive bent this season has been a real eye opener. And we're not talking about fluky plays. Against Florida there was Conroy retrieving the puck deep in the Panther zone and in a heartbeat flicking a laser-like pass tape-to-tape pass onto the stick of Jarome Iginla in the slot for a 2-0 Flames lead. Against the Leafs, Conroy took an outlet pass from Igor Kravchuk and with little hesitation threw another tape-to-tape bullet onto Iginla's stick for a breakaway and a 1-0 Flames lead. In the second period, again, Conroy reacted instantly and naturally to hit Dean McAmmond on the tape for a 2-0 Calgary lead. Those types of plays are reminiscent of the skill Gilmour displayed in his prime as one of the great playmaking centres in the NHL. While Conroy isn't in that class, the centre is now on pace for an astonishing 82 points. His chemistry with Iginla must also be leaving a few sweat beads on the forehead of injured number one centre Marc Savard. It would be easy to dismiss the production of Conroy as merely benefit by association with Iginla, but Conroy was actually producing long before their forced merger. The Flames are a franchise that has been looking for a break for a full 12 years. Maybe they've finally found one.

"THAT'S A SET PLAY" - Flames centre Craig Conroy, talking about the slick power play goal Jarome Iginla scored against the Leafs to give the Flames a 1-0 lead on Saturday night. "We want to open the guys up on the first power play so it backs them off. I looked up and Jarome was in perfect position. I gave him the pass and he did the rest."

DON CHERRY IS OFF TO A PREDICTABLE 2-7-1 start with Mississauga and while his critics are falling off their chairs with laughter at the sight of a little humility infiltrating Cherry's tall collars, the Coaches Corner veteran claims he is finding some inner peace with it all, particularly the long bus rides typical of junior hockey. "A lot of people feel sorry for me, but I enjoy it. Nobody can get to me. I can sit at the back of the bus. I have no cell-phones and I can look out the window and nobody's calling me and nobody wants something from me. It's very peaceful."

THE HERALD'S BRUCE DOWBIGGIN HAS A NEW BOOK OUT - "THE STICK" - which is getting good reviews. One of the more interesting stats from his research - 70 per cent of Canadians shoot left-handed, 70 per cent of Americans shoot right-handed, and 90 per cent of Europeans shoot left-handed. That's interesting since the world over, right-handed people are far more prevalent than lefties. Just throwing my two illiterate cents onto the topic, my theory is that Europeans and Canadians start with hockey while American kids typically start with baseball. There are far more right-handed batters in baseball than lefties. As a kid, I started with baseball, unusual for a Canadian, and, as a natural right-handed person, ended up batting right and shooting a puck right-handed as well. That would seem to make me an oddball Canuck. Or a normal American.

THE CALDER CUP CHAMPION ST. JOHN FLAMES might have given us an early glimpse of what we were going to see in Calgary this year. In the middle of the Calder Finals series last year against Wilkes-Barre, Penguins coach Glenn Patrick had this to say about the baby Flames. "Their speed worries us. Right on through the playoffs, we could get the puck deep, get on their defense, cycle down low, work them hard, bang them, get chances in that direction. Now, we dump it in, they turn the puck up on us, come back hard and get into our zone. We're going to have to find a way to get it into their zone and sustain some sort of momentum down there." Sound familiar?

"I THINK HE'S VERY MOTIVATED because he didn't get picked up on the Olympic team yet. He didn't get picked up on the (first) eight, and then they brought a bunch of those guys to that training camp and he was a fill-in. He knows he has to put up big numbers in the first two months, because they said it will have a lot to do with performances early in the season. If he stays where he is, they'll have to pick him." - Wings coach Scotty Bowman on Brendan Shanahan. Greg Gilbert might have said the same thing about Jarome Iginla.

"I THINK ALPO WAS MORE WORRIED about drinking wine and having dinner with his friends than coaching." - Mike Smith, GM of the Hawks, talking of fired coach Alpo Suhonen. Smith was apparently a little peeved that Suhonen chose to write a critical expose of his time in Chicago.