One week and three games into their November 2009 schedule, the Calgary Flames have radically improved their statistics, responding well to coaching criticism. The team took on the New York Rangers at the Pengrowth Saddledome Saturday night, skating away with a 3-1 win, Calgary's third straight victory.
Following a pair of at-home losses to end October, the Calgary Flames had a few days off before hitting the road for a tough back-to-back set in Dallas and St Louis, trailed closely with a return flight home to meet the New York Rangers.
Head coach Brent Sutter took full advantage of the preceding lull, using it to shake up his players.
The team’s so-called "time off" featured physically intensive practice, group lectures, and a few one-on-one chats for those deemed in need of a prod. An already tough week made tougher, Sutter’s discipline was a necessary action, intended to provoke an even more necessary reaction.
So far, it’s worked.
Rather than looking tired or belligerent under pressure, the Flames chose to benefit from their coach’s hard but well-meaning words. As expected, most have responded by stepping up their game accordingly, and already there are striking differences between October and November.
No shock here: Jarome Iginla leads by example
After exemplifying the slow starts with which he is known to struggle, captain Jarome Iginla has picked up his production and is back on pace, putting three goals and an assist in the twin road tilts against the Stars and the Blues.
It was the third time this year he’d recorded points two games in a row and, with his goal Saturday against the Rangers, is now in his best streak this season. Three games, three wins—five points for Iginla, six for the team.
Just a week ago, Iginla’s numbers looked faded, and somewhat misleading.
Twice in October, he recorded a 100.0 shooting percentage, but these were just three shots in total and account for all but one of his goals that month. His highest single-game shot total so far this year is five, a respectable number tossed at the opposition’s net on three separate occasions. These counted for little, however; each of those three games were Calgary victories which saw a total of 14 Flames goals—Iginla contributed just one of those despite his 15 overall snipes.
Accused of over-passing and under-shooting, when he targeted the puck himself it seemed less liable to go in than when he held himself to one or two attempts at the twine.
That didn’t mean less was more. Unbelievably, according to NHL statistics, Iginla failed to register a single shot in Calgary’s deflating 3-1 Halloween loss against Detroit. His most significant stat on the night was a minus-2 rating.
The source of Sutter’s frustration was clear and, obviously, so were his words of wisdom when he delivered them to the team last week.
Iginla is rapidly catching up to his normal numbers, currently sitting second in team scoring with 14 points, three points behind overall leader Rene Bourque.
It remains unfortunate that post-ringer Olli Jokinen has yet to match his captain’s output, but the Finnish winger's varied numbers at least serve to highlight Iginla’s remarkable talent and professionalism. Not only has Jarome responded efficiently to voiced concerns over his own game, but he continues to look for opportunities to help still-struggling team-mates, setting up Jokinen and others to succeed as often as possible.
Calgary's No. 12 is a leader who knows how to rise to responsibility.
Iginla’s second goal Wednesday night against Dallas sealed the match for the Flames in overtime, his first game-winner of the year; with a beautiful straight-in tally from in front of the New York net Saturday, he nabbed his second clincher of the season in a three-game span.
After a grand total of four markers through twelve outings in October, he now has the same number of goals in just three matches.
Teamwork and goaltending "net" big rewards
Against Dallas, things looked rocky when the Flames started off the night taking penalty after penalty.
That all ended midway through the second period, when Brendan Morrow was awarded a penalty shot on goaltender Curtis McElhinney after an Adam Pardy foul. The young Calgary back-up—already shouldering the heavy burden of starting in place of a flu-ridden Miikka Kiprusoff—stood his ground and turned aside the Dallas sniper to keep the game even at nil all.
Just a few minutes later, Jarome Iginla would open the scoring with his first of the evening to take a 1-0 Flames lead they would carry into the third. Calgary didn't take another call the rest of the night.
Responsibility begets responsibility.
McElhinney came up big against the Stars, halting 38 of 40 pucks launched his way. Kiprusoff returned the next night to face the Blues—after his fever broke—and stood on his probably-aching head, allowing just a single goal on 31 shots. Only one other puck would slide by him Saturday against the Rangers, further lowering his GAA to a respectable and much more comfortable 2.68.
In the words of Rangers coach John Tortorella after the game, “Kiprusoff’s the difference.”
As the anchor to Calgary’s game, Flames goalies are expected to be the difference. Kiprusoff, as the workhorse starter of a top club, is one of the primary players targeted by high expectations to perform at his very best, night after night.
As a team, they have held up well and hopefully there are no more storms to weather. They dropped two at home, took public and private wrist-slaps from head coach Brent Sutter, then went out and promptly won back-to-back games on the road.
Hopefully it's a harbinger of more positive efforts to come.
Those two road wins were incredibly significant for the Flames, even more so if they can keep such efforts up. Back-to-backs have been badly lopsided for the Calgary crew—last season, the roster managed just one double-win in eleven tries. This year they had two end-to-end pairings in October, earning just one win in four games.
The set to start November may have been close-fought and not taken until overtime, but the Flames showed a lot of team strength after their brow-beating to earn road points in a rare double event.
As an added bonus, they also managed to smother the opposition in the overtime frames, keeping both the Stars and the Blues off the shot-sheet for a combined 4:15 minutes of extra time.
As each player works to improve his game, overall outlook brightens. Team numbers have evened out, balance is becoming more evident, blocked shots are again a Calgary staple, etc. The Flames have tidied their record from a reasonable 7-4-1 to an admirable 10-4-1, pulling themselves just ahead of near-chasing conference and division rivals in the overall standings.
Premature, perhaps, to call it a pattern after only three games and a few points; but in light of the staggered results of their first twelve, there is reasonable room for optimism if Calgary's new designs unfold as planned.
No time like the present
Relatively early in the season, Sutter decided not to wait in voicing concerns. When the club started slipping in the closely-competitive Western Conference battle, he put his men through their paces and spoke his message clearly—and probably loudly.
By addressing players and problems both separately and as a group, he tasked the Flames with more balanced responsibilities: those undertaken as individuals, those confronted as a cohesive team unit.
As flickered-out Jack O’Lanterns decay, the fog lifts on previously clouded Flames statistics.
Having seen the competition, and knowing how quickly the regular season drains away, experienced coaches and players realise there is no sand to waste getting it together. Fifteen games down and a couple in hand, now is as good a time as there can be for the Calgary Flames to find the rhythm that will carry them through the year.
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