This was the measuring stick. The Calgary Flames knew it. While every player will tell you it is one day, one game, at a time, Tuesday's tilt with the San Jose Sharks and their high-flying West Coast offence was a date everyone in the Flames dressing room was acutely aware of.
It all stemmed back to Nov. 13 when the Flames were eaten up 6-1 by the Sharks in San Jose. At the time, the Flames were 9-8-1 and still searching for their identity. Outshot 46-24 the Flames were a group in need of a re-group. The loss prompted the team to cancel some rest and relaxation in the Bay Area.
Instead, they returned home and worked for four days at a west Calgary rink, tinkering with their defensive system and talking about where improvements were needed.
Almost immediately, they began turning things around and many hearken back to that weekend of workouts as a turning point for the season. Indeed since suffering the Shark Attack in November, the Flames had established themselves as a top six team in the league, posting a 14-4-3 record since that particular loss.
So, having the Sharks pay a visit to the 'Dome gave the Flames another chance to prove themselves against not only an elite team from the Western Conference but the team many believe is the best in the league right now.
"We've had a good stretch but we've got to start beating those top teams," noted forward Craig Conroy prior to the game.
Indeed, in the Western Conference the elite, at the moment, are Detroit, Chicago and San Jose. Heading into Tuesday's game the Flames had not beaten any of those teams and had just two overtime losses to show in six match-ups with the cream of the Western Conference.
That all changed in the 60 minutes of hockey played Tuesday. At the start of the game the Flames were ready. They were hungry. They were smart. They were, in a word, dominant.
"We skated well and made smart plays," said Daymond Langkow, who scored twice. "They embarrassed us in their building and we didn't forget that."
The examples were everywhere. Calgary outshot the Sharks 16-4 in the first period to stake out an impressive 3-0 lead. San Jose didn't record a shot on net until 3:09 remained in the period and it was a weak, bad angle shot off the stick of fourth-liner Mike Grier that was easily handled by goalie Miikka Kiprusoff.
By that time the Flames had 15 shots on net and a 2-0 lead courtesy goals from Curtis Glencross, Langkow and Mark Giordano, who scored with the Flames enjoying a man advantage. Langkow, on his own, had four shots on goal in the first period and then tallied his second goal of the night on his fifth shot of the game just a minute and a half into the second period. That goal chased Evgeni Nabokov from the Sharks net as he was replaced by Brian Boucher.
The Sharks, not a team to roll over and play dead, gained life with two tallies in the second period, including a shorthanded goal with some nifty work from their captain, Patrick Marleau. Buoyed by their special teams play the Sharks went on to outshoot the Flames 14-5 in the second setting up an interesting third period to say the least.
"We did in the first period what they did to us in San Jose. We came out hard and we capitalized," said defenceman Robyn Regehr.
"We let the foot off the gas a little in the second but came back hard in the third with a strong period."
What was so different from a couple of months ago? The Flames defence, for one, was a wall most of the night. Second, the Flames didn't give up pucks at the bluelines. They made smart plays to get it out of their own zone and put up nice chip and chase pucks when they needed to get it deep in the Sharks zone. In essence, they played a game the Sharks have been playing all season.
The Flames also produced with depth. The line of David Moss, Curtis Glencross and Matthew Lombardi were a force on the forecheck all game while Glencross and Moss scored. "The focus of our line is to get pucks deep and get in on the forecheck," said Moss.
We can put away the measuring stick for now. The Flames measured up just fine against the Best in the West playing a relentless pursuit game that took a lot of the swim out of the Sharks.
Can they now consider themselves an elite team in the league?
"We're not a team that gets too far ahead of ourselves. We just have to come out and take the bull by the horns every game like we did tonight," said Todd Bertuzzi.
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