In early December, the Calgary Flames resided in the Western Conference basement. They were an unqualified mess. A few weeks later, they were two points out of it. But, like the New Jersey Devils, they’ve engineered a remarkable turnaround and head into Sunday’s Heritage Classic Game against the Canadiens among four teams tied in the middle of the West standings with 68 points.
Just before Christmas, they were 14-18-3, but after a 4-2 win over Dallas on Wednesday, they were in a five-way tie for fourth. Things being what they are in the West, they are now technically in ninth, but they’re also two points out of fifth. They’ve gone 16-4-5 in their last 25 games (one of those overtime losses to the Habs on Jan. 17) and have lost just one game in regulation time in their last 13, getting 21 of a possible 26 points. This is one hot team.
How have they done it? There are a few of theories. Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail believes the positive vibe that has come from interim GM Jay Feaster is a major factor. Feaster took over for the dour Darryl Sutter on Dec. 27, told the players to crank up the rock music in the dressing room and let everyone just do their job, including the coaching staff, headed by Darryl’s brother Brent.
Darryl was hands-on in all aspects of the operation and his grumpy style permeated the organization. Former Flame Eric Nystrom, who signed with the Wild last off-season, told The Calgary Sun the atmosphere around the club, “a little overbearing.”
Now, Duhatschek writes that Feaster’s “uber-positive attitude filtered down to the coaching staff, which
players say has been far more supportive these past six weeks, even in
games when the Flames fall behind.”
Flames captain Jarome Iginla takes a bit broader view. “I think it’s a lot of things,” Iginla told NHL.com. “We’re a lot more confident
as a team. Right through our lineup, we feel like every line can go out
and contribute. If it’s not that line, it’s another line. We’ve been
getting scoring all the way through. Our work ethic and consistency have
been better. Our coaching staff has also helped us keep our focus and
been very positive. I think it’s just all of it. As a team, we want to
keep that going. Guys are feeling good, and that’s a good thing.”
The irony is that Darryl was roasted regularly in the local press for building a team that was going nowhere. But the team that is now winning is the same one.
“We felt we just had a better team than what we were showing.” says former Hab Alex Tanguay. “And it was certainly frustrating for us not to be able to get it done from day one. But we knew all along that if we just played the way we were capable of playing with the skill level, with the personnel we have, we felt we were a good enough team to win. And right now, if you look at our game, I don’t think any of the players are surprised by the success we’re having. I think we’re just playing up to our potential. I still feel we can play better.”
It has helped that the oft-maligned Olli Jokinen rediscovered his game. After scoring seven goals and adding 10 assists in his first 35 games, he’s notched five goals and 19 assists in the last 25. He may no longer be the sniper who five times topped 34 goals in a season, but Jokinen is still capable of setting up others, playing on a line between Curtis Glenncross and David Moss, the Flames best threesome in recent games. Glenncross (profiled here in The Calgary Sun) is one away from his first 20-goal campaign and Moss, who had his 13th goal and three assists last week in the 9-1 blowout of Colorado, has an outside chance to hit that 20-goal mark as well.
As usual, Miikka Kiprusoff has been a workhorse for Calgary. He’s been in goal for all but one game in the current 13-game run and has surrendered only 26 goals in those dozen games. And one of the Flames’ biggest improvements has been their team defence. During a 14-game stretch from early November through early December, they allowed at least 30 shots against 11 times; during this 13-game stretch, they’ve allowed 30 or more only four times.
Here is how the Flames are likely to line up for the Heritage Classic Game:
Alex Tanguay-Brendan Morrison-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-David Moss
Rene Bourque-Matt Stajan-Tim Jackman
Tom Kostopoulos-Mikael Backlund-Niklas Hagman
Jay Bouwmeester-Robin Regehr
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Steve Staios-Anton Babchuk