05/06 Quarter Pole
Flames End First Quarter on Fire
Believe it or not, this “My NHL” season is already 25% into the books with the Flames thrilling come from behind victory over the Minnesota Wild on Monday night, their seventh win in a row.
On Halloween a quarter summary of the Flames was set up to be one scary piece of non-fiction. Questions about player acquisitions, suggestions about over-hyping, trepidation surrounding the fact that that mystical playoff ride just may have been smoke and mirrors and not the coming of age of a young hockey club.
The opposite is true with a writer forced to temper enthusiasm in the midst of a string of games that has the naysayers quietly looking for a dark corner, and the exuberant bunch able to crow once again after cooling their jets for most of October.
Stinky October, red hot November … something doesn't add up, so who are these guys?
Take out that very strange four game road trip to start the season, and the team seems to have the same “feel”, that carried them to within one goal of a Stanley Cup Championship. It might not fit the brand name of this remade National Hockey League, but they have been quite effective on the defensive side of the puck – keeping shots against down, keeping rebounds to a minimum, and generally being a difficult hockey club to play against.
If you like winning it works, if you're looking for Rembrandts night to night … look elsewhere. but the 05-06 Calgary Flames seem to have found their way in the new world.
Despite a resurgence to both the powerplay and the penalty kill over the past three weeks, the overall statistics when the quarter comes to a close suggest that odd man situations have become the Achilles Heal of this hockey club.
The Flames powerplay sits 23rd overall with 20 goals on 131 chances, good for 15.3%. Frankly that stinks, but it should be pointed out that they looked a heck of a lot worse when it sat around the pathetic 6% mark literally killing the Flames chances to win in mid October. The penalty killing unit didn't fare much better early, but have also risen to the 23rd spot with 26 goals allowed on 129 chances. This statistic once sat at an almost astonishing 60% at about the time that the Calgary powerplay was falling over itself.
The special team numbers suggest a team that shouldn't be even close to .500 given the penalty happy nature of the new game, however the Flames allocated the bad to the games they lost in bunches, leaving a decent or better performance in two thirds of their games – hence the four games over mark.
Players Over Achieving
Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff were clearly the clubs two best players in the opening quarter, but to suggest that either was over achieving would be a tough sell. They're paid to be the teams' best two players, they were. End of story. Given Iginla's tough starts in recent seasons one could suggest he's ahead of pace however, good news for racking up early season win totals.
No, this category belongs solely to three players, two that are real obvious and another quietly going about his work.
Dion Phaneuf has been simply amazing. No first year Calgary defenceman has ever come close to the contribution he's made since Gary Suter blasted on to the scene in 1985. He's shown poise in his own zone, an ability to pick his spots with his train wreck penchant for open ice hits, and has chipped in way more offensively than anyone expected. The days of slow reaction wristers from the point on Calgary powerplays seems to be a thing of the past. The kid had star written all over him, but the gestation time might be considerably less than expected.
Chuck Kobasew is the other young player that has literally burst on the scene. The guy with a career best six goals scored in 2003-04 already has seven to trail only Iginla through the first twenty games, yet that only begins to tell the story. He has to be leading the team in chances, and has been a dominant player in the seven game ride the team currently enjoys. He seems bigger, faster, and tougher to play against. The Flames just may have found secondary scoring.
The less obvious choice lands at Andrew Ference. Ference started the season as the poster boy for the club's early season woes, but has completely recovered and is off to his hottest start in his young career. The affable blueliner has ten points on the board through 20 games including two goals and is an even player. To put that in perspective, Ference was had two assists and was a -5 through seven games. Ference has given the Flames the chance to play six defenders consistently and not tire out a single pairing, something that should prove huge as the season winds into the dog days after Christmas (I can say that word and not “the holidays”, it's my site!).
Figueres doesn't it?
The Flames are finally able to step out and add some big names to the club and the big names are some of the players that have struggled the most in putting up numbers. New or seemingly new guns like Tony Amonte, Daymond Langkow and Steve Reinprecht (people say he played in Calgary last year, but I haven't seen irrefutable proof) have been very inconsistent game in and game out, with Amonte avoiding the dog house but not cashing in while the other two have been unable to put streaks of “good” games together.
That has to change.
On the blueline, Jordan Leopold and his paltry production totals come to mind though the young defender has played quite well in his own zone, and heard nary a cross word from Coach Sutter.
Biggest Pleasant Surprise
Many things have gone right to put the Flames in pretty good shape through the first quarter of the season.
A blazing run by Jarome Iginla has quieted all concerns about slow starts, and lockout rust and has gone a long way in the current win streak.
I would suggest the fact that Miikka Kiprusoff is not in fact a one year wonder is a very important pleasant outcome in the young season, as Kiprusoff has been either good or great in every start since that ugly four game trip to commence the campaign.
The single biggest pleasant surprise has been the huge contributions from the previously mentioned over achieving youth on this team, giving Darryl Sutter options that couldn't be assumed during training camp, and the team afloat through some tough times.
If the veterans that were expected to add depth scoring get their horses free from the post the Flames could be a very well rounded team as the season marches on.
Flames fans having endured seven seasons of bleak losing hockey still had their party hats on from 2004 when the 2005-06 campaign kicked off.
They were ready - ready to cheer, run up and down the Red Mile and enjoy life from the penthouse given all of the early season prognostications.
Instead they were served a heaping dish of concern as the Flames stumbled out of the gates, giving the city a heart failure.
Didn't see this coming …
The new NHL was well advertised and expected, so it's been a very odd sight to see hockey split in two conferences of style the way of Major League Baseball.
Sure the rules are the same, there isn't a designated hitter rule to split the two camps into two distinct games, but the style of play out East (high octane offence with little concern for defence) has been night and day to the still defensive minded West.
Eastern Conference teams have averaged 3.27 goals per game (860 goals on 263 games played through Monday night), while the West has only garnered 2.96 goals per game (809 goals in ten more games). That's quite a significant change, one that will be interesting to watch as the season plays out.
Will it make a difference come playoff time if one side is used to grinding it out while the other will be forced to clamp down?
This may sadden some, but the Flames will lose a hockey game before the season winds down in April.
Yes … yes it's true.
However, successful campaigns in the 30 team NHL have always been about extending the highs and putting a clamp on the lows. The Flames seven game stretch to close out the first quarter essentially wiped clean and more a tough start that had the team struggling to find its way.
If the team keeps their two game skids to a minimum in the next quarter they should be in very good shape when they turn the corner to the second half, likely firmly entrenched in a playoff spot.
That gut wrenching hunt for a playoff spot might have been a great prelude to an unexpected playoff ride, but this time around the crazed fan base running down the Red Mile should have calmer nerves and much more ready to drink tummies.
If that's possible.