It's very fitting that the quarter pole mark of the 2003-04 National Hockey League season has fallen a couple of days after the Flames thrilling back to back games against the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks.
Both games featured things that don't usually come to mind when the topic of the Calgary Flames came up – high-octane offence and devil-may-care defensive coverage.
A mere week ago I'd be discussing the fact that the team has allowed the fewest average shots per game in the league, a testament to their commitment to defence, their only real route to the playoff promised land. I'd also point out that the team has all kinds of trouble scoring goals, especially when their best-paid player continues to fire blanks.
At times like these it's important to be mindful of the sample size. Two games come to exactly 9.5% of the first quarter of the season and should be treated as such.
The Flames will only go as far as their defensive systems will take them, don't let that offensive barrage fool you.
This is a very different Calgary Flames team.
They are more consistent, they make less mistakes, and they are getting contributions form many players throughout their lineup.
How many previous editions of this club would be able to boast a greater than .500 record on December 1st with their two best offensive weapons in the tank and their starting goaltender missing in action?
An optimist would suggest that a team plugging along with three of its highest paid players either out of the lineup, or in it but barely noticeable is due for great things since they've grown accustomed to getting by without their input and will be that much stronger when or if these players get back on track.
Five on five, the Calgary Flames are one of the best clubs in the conference, a fact that leads one to believe that they may in fact be for real, though any true Flame fan will choose to continue to have their hands in front of their face until that Calendar flips to April.
What's not working
A team that doesn't score an abundance of goals lives atop a razor thing margin of error. They have to limit their mistakes in the defensive zone, and pray they can score enough to win close game after close game.
The aforementioned strides behind the blue are significant, but sadly this jump forward hasn't been met by an equal step from the team's goaltending brigade. The team is ranked dead last in the National Hockey League when it comes to goaltending save percentage.
This is stated more as a fact than a direction to place blame since the club's #1 stopper Roman Turek has been on the sidelines collecting his 4.5 million in dues for all but two of the team's first 21 games.
Career back up, and training camp whipping boy, Jamie McLennan has been solid at times, and flaky at others, both adjectives that are expected of an aging stopper that was rescued from the minor leagues just over a year ago. He's done the job, that's the bottom line as he has the team a game over .500 and in the hunt.
A healthy Roman Turek, or a step up provided from a recently acquired Miikka Kiprusoff may have helped the team to a handful of additional points however, as the club has literally not given the opposition a sniff in some games that they've failed to win.
Another sore spot for the team is the overall play of their special teams. They burst out of the gate with a red-hot powerplay and an atrocious penalty kill. Since then the powerplay has lost some ground, and their kill ratio has improved, but the team is still in the bottom tier of the league when it comes to odd man situations.
Finally, the team's hibernating front line scoring has been a real disappointment through the first quarter of the season.
The team has sputtered themselves out of a playoff spot for the past several years due in part to their inability to find secondary scoring sources to take the pressure off the key men, namely Jarome Iginla.
So far this season all they are getting is secondary scoring with rookie Matthew Lombardi, plugger Shean Donovan, the enigmatic Oleg Saprykin, and vets like Dean McAmmond and Martin Gelinas all chipping in with their contributions, while Iginla and Craig Conroy struggle to find their game.
Keys for the next quarter
Pick a Starter –
With Dany Sabourin up and Jamie McLennan playing to exhaustion the team had a clear number one guy and a very inexperienced backup. With the acquisition of Kiprusoff the team has somewhat of a tandem again. They need to establish that new starter for the next six weeks and ride that hot hand until Roman Turek comes back to crowd the picture. A race as tight as this is no time for a fair share or experimentation.
Kick Start Iggy –
Jarome Iginla is a nice guy. He's a good interview, a great ambassador, he's good with kids, and markets the game well from a Calgary perspective. These features are all supposed to be the added bonus that comes after the term "sniper" on his resume, not the silver lining for a guy that can't put the puck in net. He's paid to score, and he must score to help this team win more games than it loses prior to the all-star break. If the winger didn't want this pressure he shouldn't have aimed a gun named Don Meehan at the Flames temples after his one monster season. You wanted it, you got it, now go do it.
Find that Next Gear –
Playoff bound hockey clubs step up their play through out the season. They come out of the gate tentative, improve into Christmas, and then find another gear in the New Year. The Flames have to match these teams step for step to avoid a fall back that costs them a chance to run at the dance at the end of the season.
Keep It Up –
a simple one … just keep doing what they are doing to this point. It hasn't always been pretty, it hasn't always been successful, but the Flames seem to be on to something. They're not a fun group to play against, and they are establishing a reputation as a team that comes to play. They key now is to strive for that consistency level that permits this new style to carry them through a season.
Improved Special Teams –
The Flames are a rough and tumble team that plays a physical brand of hockey, a brand that has seen them penalized much more often than the opposition. This style of play is effective, but only if you can kill off the penalties that it creates. The club needs to move in to the upper half of the league in penalty killing to take that next step.
First Quarter Offensive MVP : Shean Donovan
If you were to look up "2003 Calgary Flames" in a dictionary there would be a picture of a toothless Shean Donovan celebrating a goal after a tough shift. The former Penguin is the epitome of the new identity that Darryl Sutter if forging in Calgary. He's big … he's fast … he's playing above his head – all descriptions of the team that Sutter is trying to create. Donovan isn't the team's most talented player, he doesn't lead them in scoring or any other category, but he does consistently set the tone with his style of play on a nightly basis. He's a strong representative of the unexpected scoring sources that have the Flames above .500 in December.
First Quarter Defensive MVP : Darryl Sutter
Brian Sutter couldn't do it. Neither could Don Hay, nor Greg Gilbert. Darryl Sutter has managed to finally put the small market Flames on the right path when it comes to defensive hockey. The Flames are making life miserable for opposing forwards by limiting their chances through tough work in front of the net and demonic back checking from their forwards. The club pressures the puck all over the ice, creating a defensive system that is actually interesting to watch. The team's only way into the playoff picture is goals against, they appear to be on their way.