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Charlton's NHL: "The Law of December 15th"

Rick Charlton

December 10th, 2001

Blame it on the law.

The law of averages.

The law of gravity.

The law which states teams which finish out of the playoffs five years in a row don't have an easy time clawing their way back to respectability.

The law which also says good teams like the resurgent Avalanche don't become bad overnight.

For the last 20 years I've called it "The Law of December 15th."

It's served me well through time, ensuring I don't fall for either a fast start or a slow one, always convincing me to wait for the week or so before Christmas for confirmation of one trend or another.

Staring at a sub .500 team from last season that was suddenly 13-2-4-2 to start this campaign, a team which tallied only 196 times last year but established an early pace of 252, it seemed as though the laws that normally govern these things had taken a hiatus, that reality had somehow been suspended.

But "The Law of December 15th" was always there in the background like a cool drink of water of a sickly hot day, a breath of fresh air in a smoky bar, like flicking on your TV on Saturday morning and finding "Destry Rides Again" with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich just spooling up.

The beautiful logic of an 82 game schedule is the way everything seems to end up in its proper slot when the final buzzer sounds on the final game in mid-April.

Teams which launch themselves to a 125 point pace through the first six weeks are inevitably sucked backwards to something approaching normal. Stars who begin the season moribund somehow end up with the 100 points they always do, and others, strangers to the top of the statistical pile, inevitably find themselves returning to their proper slots.

It is the time of year in which the "The Law of December 15th" begins to assert itself, when the stranger things which might have occurred earlier in the season begin to correct themselves.

Logic wins in the end. Sanity prevails.

And that's not good news for the Flames. Or the Hawks. Or Jarome Iginla. Or the New York Rangers for that matter.

It's great news for the recently slumping Joe Sakic, for a moribund Mark Recchi, for the suddenly assertive Jaromir Jagr.

Further evidence of The Law of December 15th is the startling return of many factors, which sank the Flames last season.

In this space last March. 13th, in the aftermath of the Craig Conroy/Cory Stillman deal, I wrote the following paragraph:

"And so there you have it. The bottom-line. The Flames are littered with third and fourth line types who can't score and can't keep the puck out of their own net, both on the penalty-kill and five on five."

And that seems to be the issue today. Old habits are hard to break. Chris Clark and Jeff Cowan are playing to form.

Leading the league in penalty minutes while simultaneously hovering near the bottom in penalty killing might be best described as a recipe for suicide than some sort of testimonial for toughness.

Are they tough or just idiots? (As a sidebar, GM Doug Risebrough was asking that question of the Flames in 1993-94 in the same situation.) If you can't do the time don't commit the crime.

In spite of setting an NHL record for penalties by one team in one period the bottom line is the Flames were run out of their own building Saturday night because the scoreboard said 4-0 in favour of Anaheim.

Results are the only thing which matter in the NHL and the Flames, as was the case last year, are beating themselves. Capable of so much more as we saw earlier, they have instead sunk into a repetitive cycle of bad penalties, worse penalty-killing and indifferent defensive play.

For a few shining weeks Igor Kravchuk was tough in front of his own net, his spine reinforced by the presence of Bob Boughner. But that too was an illusion.

Dave Lowry avoided The Law of December 15 last year, something that happens occasionally, but is falling under its spell once again, his career stats beginning to assert themselves.

Against the Ducks, Rob Niedermayer might have had one of his worst games as a Flame, his earlier exuberance and confidence replaced by visible frustration and morale sapping confusion.

Strangely, The Law of December 15th might actually help Niedermayer who has proven to be a fairly reliable 12-15 goal man through his career. He too could eventually even out to his career stats.

Calgary's hot start has been heart-warming to its fans but, like a simmering summer is usually followed by cold winter, the inevitable smoothing out process is beginning to make itself felt.

The Flames are not a 125 point team. But they might be a 90 to 95 point team when it's all said and done, when all the laws of space, time, gravity and December 15th are factored in.

There wasn't really any hope the Flames would keep the Avs, Stars and Sharks under their heels. I said as much in my October 23rd column where I asserted the real teams to watch this year would be the Kings, Canucks and Predators.

And that remains the case today.

Calgary's season in some ways is beginning to mirror that of the Oilers last year, when Edmonton put the Flames 13 points in arrears only to see that lead diminish to three with the Flames having a couple of games in hand. But then the Oil took off and Calgary faltered.

And so the Flames by and large, are reverting to form. They have some star power, some youth making significant advances. Roman Turek is the real deal but, like most goaltenders, is only as good as the defence being played in front of him. Indeed, there is a lot to like about this team.

Calgary is still in control of its own fate - which is more than could be said of the last few years - and the relevant teams chasing them aren't setting the world on fire either.

But insidious fingers of doubt are beginning to creep into their collective heads, the normal giggles and banter of a winning team replaced instead by the deadened quiet of the desperate.

It all evens out in the end. For the Flames, that's the problem. It's the law.

LOST AMID THE FISTICUFFS OF SATURDAY NIGHT was the brief moment early in the second period when Craig Conroy was dropped as the centre for Jarome Iginla and Dean McAmmond, replaced by Marc Savard. But the result was a trio immediately pinned in its own end for a full shift, Savard leaving the ice shaking his head. As quickly as the experiment started, it also ended.

DISCO AND BELL-BOTTOMS ARE BACK so why not old time brawls from the 1970's? The disciplinary penalties for the bizarre fight filled final two minutes of the Flames/Ducks contest should be interesting indeed. Kevin Sawyer for sure will find himself sitting for several games and, if you think about it, his attack to the head of Mike Vernon wasn't so different from the pre-meditation of Marty McSorley's swipe at the noggin of Donald Brashear. Only the police were missing. Craig Berube might face some disciplinary action not for hitting Ducks netminder Jean Sebastien Giguere but rather his pre-meditated attack of punching bag Jeff Friesen. Beyond that I can't see suspensions for anyone else although Ducks coach Bryan Murray would certainly deserve a look. Let's face it, Sawyer isn't smart enough to lace his own skates let alone think up something like that on his own. Instead of nit picking about who did what, I suspect the NHL will fine both teams something insignificant, say $25,000 apiece. The type of incident seen in Calgary is extremely rare and not indicative of a larger problem in the league. Until recently, major league baseball easily beat hockey for unbridled mayhem, with weekly bench-clearing brawls. And the fans loved it.

THANKS TO THE FLAMES FOR picking my name out of the hat last July in their season ticket renewal contest. They sent myself and three other buds to LA last week to see the Flames and Kings at Staples Centre, as well as loading us down with various bootie including shirts and hats. But the question of whether or not I should have accepted the trip is a valid one. As someone who spent eight years in a previous life as a working journalist/columnist I'm well aware of the conflict of interest issue which can arise from accepting what is essentially a gift from the team while commenting on them at the same time. Normally, as a matter of policy, such a gift should be rejected out of hand. However, I said right at the start of this gig I wasn't going to pretend to be a real journalist nor even a columnist, the time I have available to devote to this being limited. My role at is simply that of commentator, a somewhat distant position as an observer of the Flames and the NHL. And an unpaid one at that. So accepting a little nepotism for the last year and a half of effort at isn't ruffling my sense of right or wrong. As it turned out, considering the fast company I was keeping with D'Arcy, Dave and Jeff, the LA game actually turned out to be somewhat incidental, contact with the Flames themselves confined to a couple of fleeting glimpses. The rest of the time was spent . . . . . well, you don't want to know. Let's just say that D'Arcy was in tears at one point.



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