The Flames mid-season report
The first half included a offensive burst to start the season in October, when the Flames scored 42 times and produced a 6-3-3 record. November was a disaster as the offence, 28 goals in 14 games, and the defence, 43 goals against, took a hiatus. That month pushed the Flames out of the playoff picture to the point that, at the start of a six-game road trip in December, the Flames fund themselves in 13th spot in the Western Conference. But a franchise-record-tying six consecutive road wins turned the season around. The Flames returned from the road tip in seventh in the Western Conference and completed an impressive December with a 9-1-4 record and their highest-scoring month to date with 46 tallies. The Flames are essentially on the same points pace as last season when the garnered the eight and final playoff spot.
They have their sights set higher this season -- they want the division title and a top three seed heading into the playoffs.
"You have to take a measure of where you are, where you have been and where you are going," noted head coach Mike Keenan.
Let's take a look at the good, the bad and everything else as the Flames head into the second half of the season.
Jarome Iginla has been, without a doubt, the top player for the Flames this season. He has been consistent in his offence and whoever he ends up playing with on the top line inevitably starts to produce, too. After Wednesday Iginla was second in the league in points (55) and third in goals (29). As impressive as that is, he also leads the Flames in the plus-minus table, something that tells us he is playing at both ends of the ice. At this pace Iginla will set new personal bests this season and be one of the leading candidates for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the NHL's Most Valuable Player. He might also stay in the hunt for the Rocket Richard Trophy. However it ends up, he is the heart and soul of the team.
Home and Away
On the road, the Flames are 10-7-1, a full eight points ahead of their pace last season. At home, it's a different story. Last season the Flames were the only team to win 30 times on home ice. After Wednesday's game against the New York Rangers the Flames had 10 wins at home. Last season, after 22 home dates, the Flames had won 17 times. So, there is no doubt the Flames have to improve at home if they want to stay in the hunt for the Northwest Division crown. Does anybody have an explanation? Nope. But slow starts at home have certainly been a problem. The good news is that the Flames have won three straight at home. "Winning begets winning and you have to build on it," said Keenan.
We've already noted that Iginla leads the team offensively. Kristian Huselius, after a lousy offensive stretch, came to life again in December and will need to continue to produce as more and more teams key on Iginla. He started 2008 with a four point game against the Rangers, including the game-winner. That's a positive sign. After a big scoring start, Daymond Langkow has cooled somewhat. However, he still remains one of the Flames top forward. Others who will need to up their contributions in the forward ranks are Craig Conroy, Owen Nolan, Alex Tanguay and Matthew Lombardi. Few teams in the NHL can survive the push to the playoffs with two or three scorers. While the aforementioned have chipped in offensively, they will need to do so more consistently. Nolan has provided some scoring (seven goals). A nice round 20 goals from him would bode well for the Flames but he may need power play time in the second half to get there.
With the addition of three new defencemen -- Adrian Aucoin, Anders Eriksson and Cory Sarich -- in the off-season, there was a lot of feeling out to be done. That's no longer an issue as the pairings seem to be set. And, truth be told, the Flames are a strong team five-on-fivehaving scored 76 times while allowing 64. Again, the word from coaches and from the players is that the defence has to be more consistent. Offensively the Flames are getting good production off the back end from the likes of Aucoin, seven goals and 22 points, and Dion Phaneuf, six goals and 27 points. The big surprise on the blueline might be Eriksson. He has shown he can be steady and is capable of logging some big minutes when called upon. The return of Rhett Warrener, one of three Flames who have suffered a high ankle sprain this season, in the next week or so will help boost the toughness on the blueline.
Miikka Kiprusoff has been much like the team. Great games. Good games. Bad games. However, through the latter part of December he had more great games than bad games and that's a positive sign. His numbers are not very Kiprusoff-like, though. He had a .895 save percentage and a 2.82 goals against average. He is playing a ton -- back-up Curtis McIlhinney has started just one game so far this season. On the upside Kiprusoff's 20 wins are second most among goaltenders. Interestingly, Kiprusoff has not recorded a shutout this season. That may come in the second half. Expect him to continue to improve as the season moves along.
The Kids are alright
First Eric Nystrom was called up. Then it was Dustin Boyd. And the two youngsters are contributing plenty of energy, jump and excitement into the line-up. On the downside it has meant less playing time and less games for veterans Marcus Nilson and Wayne Primeau. Nystrom, in particular, has proven to be a valuable player. He is a tenacious checker and strong penalty-killer. Boyd has three goals in 18 games and should reach 10 by the end of the season as he gets more comfortable in the big league.
The conference is a log-jam and any slump could prove deadly to playoff aspirations. The Flames will also want to look after business in the Northwest Division where they are 7-6-3 so far this season. Four of the five teams in the division are in the playoff hunt so the four-point games will become critical in the second half. The Flames often refer to getting 12 points for every 10 games played, or .600 hockey. That pace would put them close to 95 points and a spot in the playoffs. "As a team we have been playing better lately," said Kiprusoff. "We still have stuff to work on but it is getting better."