05/06 Quarter Pole
Flames Right Course After Early Flounder
It was such a ridiculous start, so low to the ground were they flying that snakes in wagon ruts were getting a haircut from the propeller that it couldn't have been taken seriously.
As the Flames wallowed out of the gate in 2005-06, giving up three to five powerplay goals a game, scoring few themselves and, in the immortal words of Darryl Sutter, "being totally dominated" while looking like a collection of pylons only modestly interfering with their opponents, agog fans were naturally wrapping their fingers on the dashboard so tight they left indentations of the like we haven't been seen since Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Yet we should have known it was too good of a team to be looking so bad.
Slowly but surely, the processes that go into winning, particularly from a Sutter team, began to take hold. We saw them start to clean up their own end and, as a result, they became one of the better five on five teams in the league. They eventually cleaned up their penalty killing and their team goals against average began to climb to the highest reaches of the NHL, in spite of the weight of their earlier flops, Miikka Kiprusoff finally getting the help he needed and responding in kind. Crisp, first passes out of their own zone began to re-establish their team speed from a wallowing start and an aggressive forecheck has lately begun to yield more offence after being stuck in a quirky way at three goals per game or less.
The question outstanding, of course, is whether the version that has won seven in a row is also a mirage. Are they really this good?
While the Flames rack up an impressive run, there remains one task left to prove, whether or not they've achieved the chemistry and character level to win on the road, something that that will go one more level in determining if this team does indeed have the stuff to be considered a serious Cup contender rather than just a garden variety playoff team.
To call the first quarter a cliché, a roller-coaster ride, would be an understatement.
Home ice advantage is working . . . . . but does that mean they're only good on home ice or will their recent success translate itself into the road warriors we saw last season, the character team that could win in any rink and frequently did, particularly in the playoffs? One could easily observe that if the Flames had actually used home ice advantage in the playoffs as successfully they are right now, they probably would have won a Stanley Cup in 2003-04. But solid road teams are the scary ones . . . .
WHAT'S NOT WORKING
Still too many penalties but that's true of most teams in the league in this "new" NHL, seventh overall in total minors against. At least they're killing them off a lot better than they were in the first pile of games and that in turn has taken some of their early tentativeness away, helped by the increasingly effective play of Kiprusoff. But the real answer here is probably secondary scoring. Some 20 games into the season the Flames still haven't seen the production they need not only from obvious sources like Tony Amonte and Daymond Langkow but also of the type they had in 2003-04, the kind of goals where middle level players overcome their lack of vision by stopping at the net and whacking away instead of engaging in a big circle away from the action . . . . and that means guys like Chris Simon, Marcus Nilson, Darren McCarty, Stephane Yelle, Shean Donovan or Jason Weimer need to start adding something rather than just preventing their opponents from scoring.
Is there really a clear choice for the "Shean Donovan Award" this year? Even the developing Chuck Kobasew is pretty much doing what he's supposed to be doing and it can only be remarked that the grossly over-hyped Dion Phaneuf is actually living up to his hype, on pace for 20 goals as a rookie defenceman, a feat virtually unheard of for years yet something we were somehow expecting. Okay . . . enough joking around. It's Phaneuf. Hype or no hype, this is way better than anyone had a right to expect.
The problem that has dogged other Craig Conroy replacements, unable to play at the speed Jarome Iginla needs to play, seems to be in focus here as well. Langkow is a decent NHL player and better than he's shown to date . . . . but is this the ideal team for him, a guy with average legs who might not be quick enough for a prominent role in this particular outfit? It would be easy to lump the statistically invisible Donovan into this category but he's merely playing to his career averages once again, an amazingly quick guy with Jim McKenny's cement hands. If that statement helps to break his early season jinx I'll happily wear the crown of thorns. Or does Donovan also need linemates who can play at something close to his speed? It's been a bit of a surprise to me that Simon hasn't been more of a stud on the powerplay with a new rules regime that should make him the proverbial immoveable object. Instead, it's been the smaller, darting, Kobsew who's become a classic garbage man for the Flames. Although not on the stat sheet, the amount of ice time afforded Leopold suggests, in the mind of Darryl Sutter, the player is at least pulling his weight in other areas.
BIGGEST PLEASANT SURPRISE
Phaneuf is turning into everything the spin-meisters said he would be and several years ahead of time . . . . there's still the effect of the grind of a full 82 games yet to be seen so we will wait with both interest and awe for the end result but it says here there will be no tailing off for the stoic but gifted rearguard.
The start to the season . . . . a team completely flummoxed and apparently unprepared . . . . or just searching for chemistry after too many changes to a winning lineup. The "new" NHL seems to favour the home team more than it might have in the past so this seven game winning streak, while welcome, needs to stand the test of an extended road trip which is where the early crisis occurred, something we need to remember. Or was it all related to the injury to Robyn Regehr? Is he really that valuable to the cause?
DIDN'T SEE THIS COMING
Dominating their own division has allowed the Flames early flounder to disappear. They've beaten the teams that mattered, not just those on the periphery and that in turn has allowed them to keep up and then take the lead. But, again, most of the recent largesse has come at home. Will it all even out in the end? They need to keep their edge by winning in Vancouver, Edmonton and Minnesota.
Every team has periods in a long season where nothing goes right and they look particularly inept. Buried deep in an 82 game schedule, it's scarcely noticeable. The problem with that occurring out of the gate is that it can snowball into a confidence thing, particularly with a team as re-worked as the Flames were during the extended vacation known as the lockout. Nevertheless, it appears the basics of Sutter hockey have been re-established and a team hovering in the top five in goals against will typically be in most contests they play, controlling the circumstances that give them a chance to win on a nightly basis. If you want to see how the opposite of that works, check out the offensively gifted but defensively challenged Penguins. Even Mario still has to think about defence in the revamped NHL.
If they keep that in mind on a nightly basis as the seemingly endless December/January/February grind approaches, then they should have themselves in a spot for the playoff drive in March and April and that missing secondary scoring should eventually re-appear . . . . . but Phillipe Sauve has to take a more prominent role lest Kiprusoff be overworked.
Sixty-two more to go.