I think I can speak for all Flames fans when I say it's been a long time coming. Expectations following the 2004 Cup finals run have so far only led to overall disappointment and frustration for the "C of Red."
Maybe I'm jumping the gun a little here, but I believe that's all over now.
Having seen four different coaches behind the bench in the past five seasons, and all of four players remaining on this year's team that took the ice against Tampa Bay in the spring of 2004 (spring doesn't really roll into Calgary until June, for those who don't know), I've got a great feeling that this is the team we've all been waiting for.
Ultimately, the reason why I believe the Flames are now the best team in the Western Conference is because they have the most complete team from top to bottom.
I'll give you five good reasons why.
I'm positive that I wasn't the only one who felt like it was Christmas Eve after hearing Brent Sutter was hired as head coach. The reason for all this excitement? The last time the Flames had any legitimate success, it was his older brother Darryl behind the bench.
Darryl Sutter ran a tight defensive system that brought the Flames to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004 and a division title in 2005-2006.
While the team has obviously changed, enough pieces are still in place to return to that form, especially in the defensive crew. GM Darryl Sutter stated he wanted to return to that system, and who better to have on board than Brent after a 97-56-11 record with the New Jersey Devils over two seasons.
With a Flames team that looks much better in terms of skill than they were four years ago, we can be more confident in them having Brent Sutter coaching behind the bench. After all, "In Sutter We Trust."
In addition to bringing in his little bro, Darryl Sutter added former Flames Dave Lowry and Jamie McLennan as assistant coaches, as well as then-Quad Cities (former AHL affiliate) head coach Ryan McGill who had coached a chunk of the current Flames roster in the minors.
Dave Lowry was fresh off a fantastic season with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen and considered by many to be a head-coach candidate for either the World Juniors or the NHL.
Jamie McLennan had always been a popular player in the city of Calgary and within the team, and having those three assistants definitely brings the Flames closer to the coaching staff.
A detail-oriented, organized group of coaches that are close and familiar with the players will go a long way for this Flames team. As explained in this next part...
After focusing on scoring goals (and a lot of them) for the three seasons under Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan, the Flames lost that defensive strength that had been their forté in the Darryl Sutter days. They slipped from first, to 11th, to 16th, and finally the 23rd in goals against over the past four seasons, respectively. It left many of us fans wondering why.
It was fairly obvious that the problem was not the defenders themselves, but the entire approach as a team. After all, looking at the names and skill level, the Flames of 2008-2009 were skating a better defensive unit and better checking lines than in 2005-2006.
Darryl decided to make that unit even better by acquiring Jay Bouwmeester, one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL...not to mention a former Medicine Hat Tiger (Mad Hat represent!). At this point in the season, I believe he could be considered for the Norris Trophy.
Once again, coaching comes into play here. Brent Sutter is a coach notorious for his attention to detail on defense. We also have to remember that he was the coach who turned Dion Phaneuf into a superstar in the WHL, and could have the former Calder Trophy finalist playing at the level expected of him ever since his stud rookie season (side note: crazy to think he gave Crosby and Ovechkin a run for their money that season).
Throw in rock-solid Robyn Regehr (one of the Flames remaining from the 2004 run) and hard-hitting Cory Sarich, as well as the crafty and mobile Mark Giordano and a developing Adam Pardy, and you have hands-down the best defense in the league (on paper).
In addition to the defensemen, the Flames two regular checking lines have been playing outstanding hockey as well. The group consisting of Dustin Boyd, Craig Conroy, Eric Nystrom, Brian McGrattan, Brandon Prust, and Freddie Sjostrom is a combined plus-23 (plus-33 if you include Curtis Glencross) while contributing 33 points as of Dec. 6.
The forecheck has been wreaking havoc at the other end of the ice, forcing turnovers and swinging momentum Calgary's way.
Watching the Flames, especially over this past few weeks, it's been very noticeable how well they're playing defensively. They're keeping shots to the outside, jumping on rebounds, blocking shots, playing very physically, and doing all the stick work necessary to make Kiprusoff's night easier.
The scary thing for the rest of the conference is that they're still improving, and have a long way to go. Let's not forget the fact that they have three players capable of significant offensive production as well in Bouwmeester, Phaneuf, and Giordano.
After the 2005-2006 season, we were reminded that while defense may win championships, defense can't win it by itself. That's why for the next three years the Flames developed a potent offense, a powerhouse almost if you will, under the tenures of Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan.
Even though, as fans, we didn't appreciate either of those coaches very much, I think it's time we realize that they developed the Flames offense which ranked seventh and eighth in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, respectively.
Within those years we saw a 50-goal year by the Captain and a career high of 98 points, a 60-point season by Phaneuf, a career year for Daymond Langkow, and the emergence of offensive threats like René Bourque, Curtis Glencross, and David Moss.
While the Flames will likely not take as many risks as they did before to produce, the Flames still have the capability of being a dangerous team in the opponent's zone. With the top tandem of Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen finding some chemistry and hitting their stride, opponents will have their hands full against the top line. Jarome Iginla on pace for 50-plus goals with Jokinen likely setting up the majority of them.
Secondary scoring is coming from players like Bourque, Moss, and steal-of-the-year Nigel Dawes, a waiver pickup in the offseason. Bourque is at a point-per-game pace, and four other players are on pace for over 40 points.
With gifted defensemen like Phaneuf and Bouwmeester joining the rush or bombing 'em from the point, the Flames are a lot to handle when they have the puck.
What strikes me most about the Flames' firepower this year (currently they're sitting in eighth for goals per game) is that they've been very opportunistic when things aren't going their way. They are regularly outshot, and sometimes even completely outplayed, but manage to find ways to score.
For example, the game against the Maple Leafs on Nov. 14, for those who watched it.
While Iginla and Jokinen were struggling to put the puck in the net early on, Calgary regularly got goals from the outside the top-six forwards, including some pretty ones (see Freddie Sjostrom vs. the Blue Jackets ). We've all seen what Eric Nystrom can do in the '09 playoffs as well, tying Iginla in points during the playoffs, with a game-winner to boot.
It all comes down to the man in the net. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has frustrated fans over the last couple of seasons with inconsistency. However, this year, he's playing his best hockey since his stellar 2005-2006 season.
With the Flames returning to a game that reduces the stress placed on him, the Finnish netminder has returned to his brilliance that he displayed under Darryl Sutter's system.
That season, Kiprusoff stole the show, winning both the Vezina and Jennings after racking up 42 wins and posting a 2.07 GAA, a .923 percent save percentage, and 10 shutouts.
It's been hard to get pucks past him recently, and if the Flames can continue to make life easier for him, he will give them a great chance to win every night that he plays.
His current GAA, save percentage, and number of shutouts and wins all rank in the top five in the NHL among starting goaltenders right now, despite having faced around 100 shots more than several in that select company.
Another surprise this season has been the play of backup Curtis McElhinney, or maybe the team in front of him. After only managing one win over the two previous seasons with the Flames, McElhinney has proved to be solid in games where Kiprusoff needs a rest. More nights off for Kiprusoff plus a "W" for McE equals success in my books. His play has allowed Sutter to reduce Kiprusoff's previously burdening workload.
I actually saw McElhinney win a game live for the Calgary Flames almost single-handedly when they came here to the Big D to play the Stars at the American Airlines Center on Nov. 4. It was a very impressive showing by McElhinney, stopping 38 of 40 shots (including a penalty shot by Brenden Morrow) and winning the game in overtime.
For the record, not a good idea to taunt fans of the home team in their own building in Texas. Been there done that.
5. Competitiveness and Experience
You can tell that the Flames are tired of underachieving. You can hear it in the way they talk, the way they play, and the way they respond when they lose. The core that Darryl Sutter built the team from has been around long enough to understand what they mean to the city of Calgary and Southern Alberta, and what's been expected of them since 2004.
Finally, we're seeing them play to win. I find it great to see the way they work hard every night, and when they lose, they get right back on track They play physically, they play with energy, and they don't constantly lay back for 40 minutes a game the way they used to.
If it's any testament to the heart that the Flames have been showing, one fact is that they're leading the league with 30 fighting majors. While I understand many fans find fighting irrelevant to the game and believe that the slugfests on skates have no place in hockey, it's part of the team mentality and that mentality wins them games.
Take a look at the game against San Jose on Saturday night. The Flames set the tone, got fired up early from the rough stuff, played a hard-nosed game, and came out with a win.
I don't know how anybody can dislike the collective chip on their shoulder that the Flames have been playing with (unless you're a Canucks fan, I guess). Personally, it shows to me that they are sick of mediocrity and want to be the team they should be.
In addition, we have major pieces of our team that are playing in the prime of their careers. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Robyn Regehr, and Miikka Kiprusoff are all veterans in the league and know what it takes to win, and three of them have done it before.
Players like Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Boyd, and Nigel Dawes are still only going to get better throughout the season. Then you have guys like Craig Conroy, 38, who is still playing with the desire to win. The passion and energy is there for a great run.
These are the five main reasons that I have more faith in my Flames than Bill Belichick does in his fourth-down offense.
The Flames have put together a team that, in my opinion, has it all. With a coach known for raising the bar and bringing out potential in a team, a stacked defense in a system that supports them, an explosive offense full of scoring threats, a goaltender capable of stealing games, and a competitive spirit, the Flames are now the best in the west.
Overall, I think the Flames this year have put together a winning recipe. I can't wait to see what it cooks up.
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