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Flames back where their season turned around

by Dan Rosen
CHICAGO -- The Calgary Flames have good reason to feel a special connection to Dallas and American Airlines Center heading into Wednesday's critical game against the Stars.

According to coach Brent Sutter, it was there in that same city, that same building, against those same Stars on Dec. 23, 2010 that the Flames' season turned around. Alex Tanguay scored the game-tying goal with 1:21 remaining in regulation and then went on to score the shootout winner, lifting the Flames to a 3-2 victory.

Calgary is 21-6-6 ever since and has climbed to seventh in the Western Conference with a chance to jump to fourth Wednesday. The Flames have to win in Dallas and hope Chicago loses to Tampa Bay in regulation.

"We were down 2-1. We scored and we won in the shootout. That seemed to spark our team a little bit," Tanguay said Wednesday. "I'm not sure if it's that exact game that sparked the team or the ones before that we couldn't win, but we've certainly been playing very good hockey as a team since that point. It's been fun."

While most hockey people continue to point to the culture change that occurred five days after Calgary beat Dallas -- the day that their former stern-faced general manager Darryl Sutter stepped down and gave way to the much merrier Jay Feaster -- coach Sutter believes the real culture change occurred that night in Dallas, when the players took over the room.

"As a player, you want to have the chance at competing for being in the playoffs, and once you're in there having the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup," Tanguay said. "At that point in time, our chances didn't look too good. We could be like one of those teams that are playing the game and they're already out. It’s been good and it's been very enjoyable since that time."

Sutter wasn't going to change his theories no matter if it cost him his job as Calgary's coach, so he needed the players to buy into them. He saw it happen for the first time in Dallas that pre-Christmas night.

"If it's only coming from the coach, eventually it gets shut out. At some point they have to do it inside the room," Sutter said last week. "At the end of the day the real truth of it all, and it's like this with any team, is when individuals inside the room decide they want to take the responsibility within the room to do it the right way and hold each other accountable to do it that way (they can win). This group eventually did that and it's been a big difference. They're now, if someone isn't doing it right, the ones going to talk to that someone to make sure things are done right."

Winning has relaxed Sutter, and maybe that is directly related to his brother Darryl's departure. He was asked directly if his job has become easier since Darryl left the organization, but he understandably didn't want to answer the question because it was too personal, too close to home.

But Sutter never did deny that some truth lies in the theory that with his brother gone he is able to do his job with a much looser attitude. He instead said his working relationship with Feaster was already solid before the changeover upstairs, so no adjustments were necessary.

"At the end of the day to me it's about the players, and the players being rewarded for their commitment to doing it the way it should be done," Sutter said. "I wasn't going to change my philosophy or theory on it."

He never felt he had to because his philosophy worked before at every level, including in major junior hockey and for two seasons with the New Jersey Devils. The difference in Calgary is he had to go teach defensive structure and the importance of everyone defending, Sutter said. He obviously never had to do that in New Jersey.

"It's something that takes time," Sutter said. "With the guys it was trying to keep their focus and telling them to stay with it, stay with it and it will happen. It took over a year to get them to a point where they felt if we did it a certain way and everyone plays that way that we can have success. To be honest, it was something new to them. You're trying to form new habits, do things differently and play a real different type of game. It takes a while for guys to adjust to that. Sometimes there is resistance, but you think they're going to buy in eventually and they did."

That it coincided with Feaster's energetic takeover from upstairs only helped fuel the Flames' run of fun.

"Guys are enjoying it and we want to it enjoy it," Sutter said. "I mean, why not? The game is supposed to be fun, and we want to have fun with it. We want to have fun every day we come to the rink, enjoy being around each other and enjoy being there. It's our responsibility as coaches to make sure that happens.

"Yes, after you lose games its not always going to be fun, but it's still not life or death either. That's always been my mindset with it, that when you walk away from a game you start getting ready for the next game. It shouldn't be that you beat yourself up so bad that it's not fun anymore. That was an attitude that had to change."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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