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Flames have returned to defense-first philosophy

by Todd Kimberley
CALGARY -- In order to move forward this winter, the Calgary Flames had to take a good look back.

Specifically, back to the 2003-04 and '05-06 seasons -- when, with current club GM Darryl Sutter behind the bench, they enjoyed the two most defensively sound seasons in franchise history.

Well, the Flames have hit the midway point of the 2009-10 campaign under Darryl’s brother Brent, and obviously the new guy is hammering his message home.

After 41 games, the 24-12-5 Flames have allowed just 98 goals. Heading into Sunday’s action around the league, that average of 2.39 goals allowed per game was sixth behind Chicago (2.15), New Jersey (2.23), Phoenix (2.30), Buffalo (2.33) and Boston (2.38).

A far cry from the defensively carefree days of Mike Keenan, under whom the Flames were 23rd in team defense in 2008-09 -- leading Darryl Sutter to comment following Keenan’s exodus: "We were, quite honestly, fortunate to be a playoff team."

A defense-first philosophy "has been the makeup of our club," Brent Sutter said Saturday night following the Flames’ 3-1 win over Toronto. "You know all the games are going to be tight games, and it’s going to be that way the rest of the year. There’s no easy nights."

If they keep up their pace, the Flames would allow 196 goals this regular season -- falling between the ’03-04 total of 176, and the ’05-06 figure of 200.

Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has enjoyed a personal renaissance, with the league’s fifth-best goals-against average (2.16) and third-best save percentage (.928) prior to Sunday.

But Kiprusoff has also been bolstered by Brent Sutter’s strident demand for constant support from all five skaters in front of No. 34 -- with a priority on defense, and no tolerance for offensive cheating or freelancing.

"Start focusing … on offense and, all of a sudden, you end up being a team that’s giving up 40 or 45 shots against, and our chances of winning those games aren’t very good. We have to play our game," Brent Sutter said recently.

"There’s nothing wrong with winning games 2-1 or 3-2, because that’s what we are as a team."

Speaking of those close games, only Curtis Glencross’s empty-net goal against the Leafs on Saturday prevented the Flames from winning their third straight by a 2-1 score.

So far this season, the Flames have been involved in 13 games that have seen a total of three goals or less — with a 7-3-3 record in those games.

That compares favorably to similar situations in ’05-06 (25 games, 14-6-5) and ’03-04 (31 games, 16-13-2).

"You have to be able to win those games in order to be successful," Glencross told Saturday. "We’ve been talking about keeping our shots (against) down for Kipper, and again tonight we had 25 shots against. That’s a number we want to stay under.

"And it’s part of our neutral-zone play and our forecheck," Glencross added. "The more the puck’s in their end, the less opportunities they have in ours."

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