Early season trend or the start of a new brand of hockey in Calgary?
Three games into the 2003-04 season and there seems to be a trend developing on the ice, and I don't mean the lack of scoring activity from the club's 7.5 million-dollar man.
Shots, or lack thereof, seems to be a common theme in all three games, and while 3 games is hardly a season made, it is a something to keep an eye on.
A somewhat controversial writer with one of the Calgary dailies walked out a formula to explain why the Flames "could" not make the playoffs this year based on the inroads they'd have to make in goals for and against.
It looked pretty in the paper, but sports have never nor will it soon follow any set formula.
Wild swings are the norm and it can be seen in a handful of teams each and every year.
The principal driving force behind these swings is a radical change to the way a team plays. This change can come in the form of improved play from a team's players or from a departure in old and failed systems and a dawning of a new style of hockey.
So far this season, the Flames are the Canadian Minnesota Wild, keeping chances down to a handful and making their slot area a difficult area to portage for enemy attackers.
Have the Calgary Flames been remade as a defence first, gritty defending hockey team?
It's their best avenue to the playoffs, so if they haven't they should.
Looking at the Numbers
The Flames have allowed an average of 21.3 shots against thus far this season, that's down almost six shots a game from their 2002-03 average at 27.1.
Six shots doesn't seem like that big a deal, but it does amount to 0.6 goals a game when applied to the Flames save percentage of last season (.897).
Over the course of a season (82 games) a six shot per game savings would translate into 64 less red lights behind Calgary goaltenders.
Considering the fact they scored 42 less than they gave up last year, this would be a significant gain.
So just how are they doing it?
The Flames have tightened up considerably in the way they play team defence. The defenceman are attacking the forwards coming in knowing that the Flames forwards are coming back to provide assistance.
Essentially they've made it very difficult for an opposing forward to carry the puck to the Flames net without having to climb over 400 plus pounds to get there.
If they do get the puck to the net the defenders are ensuring that the Flames goalie duo of Roman Turek and Jamie McLennan won't see a second shot.
In Vancouver the systems failed when key mistakes were made during the flow of a game. A turn over ... a player falling down, or two players getting confused and playing the same role instead of backing each other up.
Hockey is a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the less will win the lion's share of the their games. The key for coach Sutter is to put players in situations that they are designed for, to avoid tossing anyone in over their head.
A tall order with a young club.
Another factor that has helped the Flames is the beefing up of their roster with kids that understand two way hockey.
Blair Betts and Matthew Lombardi are both on ice leaders when it comes to shutting down the opposition and making sure they are difficult to play against.
The infusion of two mindful centers has given the Flames a much higher ratio of responsible players to minutes in the early going which has led to less mistakes in their last two games.
Indeed there is no question that a style or system change has occurred in Calgary. The seeds of this new system were likely planted back in December of 2002 at the first practice watched over by Sutter after his hiring.
Ten months later it seems to be catching hold based on repetition, and Sutter's ability to add players that fit the system, and weed out players that don't or won't.
But, and we caution you to mind your calendar, it's very early - a mere 3.7% of the way through a very long and winding hockey season.
Can they keep it up?
If they do and that first line ever manages to score a goal, the season may have a very different finish.