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Northwest: The Flames turn into road warriors

by Roger Phillips

Calgary head coach Mike Keenan has his Flames
above the .500 mark and one point out of 1st place.
Aside from their first-round playoff elimination last season, the biggest reason the Calgary Flames were a disappointment in 2006-07 was their play on the road.

The Flames were 30-9-2 at home, their 62 points on home ice the third-highest total of any team in the National Hockey League. But in their one season with Jim Playfair as coach, the Flames were abysmal on the road.

They posted a 13-20-8 record away from home, making them the only sub-.500 road team to make the playoffs, and leaving them with a similar road record to some of the bottom feeders in the NHL standings. In fact, only four teams won fewer road games than the Flames last season.

And in the playoffs, on the way to being eliminated in six games by the Red Wings, the Flames went 0-3 in Detroit, where they were outscored by a 12-3 margin.

But this past week, with new coach Mike Keenan at the helm, the Flames did something remarkable.

They opened a six-game road trip with a 3-2 win against the improved Blackhawks. They eked out a 2-1 shootout win at Florida. They took a rollicking 9-6 victory at Tampa Bay, with Jarome Iginla and Kristian Huselius posting hat tricks. They won at Carolina the next night, by a 4-3 margin; then again two days later in St. Louis, 5-3. And Tuesday night, the Flames completed a 6-0 road trip with a 3-1 win at Columbus.

Thus, in the space of a few days, the Flames overcame the stigma created a year ago that they were the kind of team that went as soft as melted ice cream the minute they left the friendly confines of the Saddledome.

Calgary is 10-6-1 on the road this season, and now it has a new task before it: to figure out once again how to win consistently at home. After being a home-ice powerhouse last season, the Flames are only 7-7-4 at the Saddledome this season.

What’s made the difference for the Flames on the road this season?

Perhaps we should go back to training camp. The Flames were bracing for their new coach, Keenan -- and his taskmaster reputation. At the time, Iginla said the specter of Keenan resulted in the Flames showing up for camp in better shape than a year ago.

“A lot of us saw some comments a while back when (Keenan) said if you weren't in shape you were going to be on the bike a lot,” Iginla said at the time. “Most of us probably look a little thinner than usual.”

Iginla also recognized that there were a lot of new players on the roster and organized a pre-camp golf and fishing outing to the mountains, aiding the bonding process.

“They recognize that they have to come together quickly, and it shows that they care for their team and that they have some responsibility in determining how this is all going to get started," Keenan said back then.

Still, the Flames got off to a slow start this season, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago were in last place in the Northwest Division.

But the road trip is a sign that things are different this year, and in the midst of the successful trip, Keenan was praising his team’s conditioning, particularly after the Flames won in Carolina the night after the wild game at Tampa Bay.

“We’ve had a lot of travel and we’ve been getting in at (wee hours of) the morning, so you don’t get much sleep, much rest,” Keenan told the Calgary Sun after the Carolina win. “But we’re a well-trained team and a fit team, and that’s helped us. You could see that we had enough energy -- just barely enough; but we had enough to get through it. I’m really pleased with that aspect of our team.”

Iginla added, “As a team, we’re believing that we’re going to go in the third (period) and find a way to win games. Things are starting to pay off.”

Who’s hot – The Flames are hot, and so are their best players. Jarome Iginla, Kristian Huselius and Dion Phaneuf combined for 14 points – six goals, eight assists – in a 9-6 win at Tampa Bay. Iginla and Huselius both had hat tricks. Phaneuf had five assists. In St. Louis, in a 5-3 win Sunday, Huselius and Iginla combined for four more goals and nine more points. Miikka Kiprusoff made 36 saves in Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Columbus. …

Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson stopped 39 of 42 shots to get to the shootout, then stopped all three shootout shots in a 4-3 win at Detroit. … Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj stopped 31 of 32 shots in a 2-1 victory against the Predators in Nashville. Two nights later, he did himself one better against the Predators, again stopping 31 of 32 shots in a 3-1 victory, and also chipping in with an assist on a goal by Marek Svatos. … The Wild’s power play scored three times in a 5-2 victory at Anaheim. Minnesota’s Josh Harding stopped 28 of 30 shots, carrying a shutout inside the final seven minutes. The next night, up the road in Los Angeles, Harding stopped 35 of 36 shots as the Wild edged the Kings, 2-1. He stopped 30 of 32 shots in Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over Nashville. Supposed No. 1 goalie Niklas Backstrom was the backup to Harding in all three games. … The Avalanche’s Ryan Smyth and Paul Stastny have been on fire. Smyth has five goals and nine assists in the last nine games. Stastny has five goals and seven assists in that span. … Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo returned after missing a week with a rib injury and stopped 32 shots in a 5-0 defeat of New Jersey.

Shootout summary – If the Oilers could push every game to the shootout, they might win the Presidents’ Trophy and have home-ice advantage through the playoffs. Their goal each night should be to play for a tie through 65 minutes, because when they reach the shootout, they’re almost impossible to beat. The Oilers produced two more shootout wins this week, though

they also lost one Tuesday night to Dallas. The first win came in Detroit, of all places, where no visiting team is ever supposed to leave with two points. But the Oilers did, winning 4-3 in -- what else? – a shootout. Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Jiri Hudler all were confounded by Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson. Ales Hemsky scored the only shootout goal the Oilers would need, and they had their victory. Hemsky improved to 5-for-9 in the shootout this season. Two nights later, Mathieu Garon stopped three of four shots in the shootout, and Sam Gagner and Fernando Pisani scored, and the Oilers had a 2-1 shootout win against the visiting Canucks. It was the Oilers’ third-consecutive shootout win against the Canucks. Tuesday, however, the Oilers lost 2-1 to the Stars in the shootout. The Oilers’ shooters went 0-for-3, and Roloson allowed a goal to Sergei Zubov. Still, without the shootout, the Oilers would be trying to figure out which players to trade where, and studying for the NHL Draft in June.

Rumor mill – A recent Avalanche-Rangers trade rumor was the height of absurdity, and based on the low percentage of rumors that actually come to pass, it’s hard to argue. Anyway, the rumor had the Rangers sending forward Petr Prucha, goalie Al Montoya, defenseman Marik Malik and a prospect to Colorado for defenseman John-Michael Liles and forward Marek Svatos. … Every time Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe shows up at an NHL game not involving his team, the rumor mill grinds into high gear. His appearance at three recent non-Oilers games started more buzzing, but to date, nothing has happened. And it won’t until the NHL’s holiday trading freeze ends next week. … With the Oilers’ Raffi Torres sidelined with a knee injury for a few weeks, you can put trade rumors involving him to bed, at least until after the New Year. … The Columbus Dispatch suggested Oilers defenseman Dick Tarnstrom could be available. Lots of rumors involving Oilers seem to be coming out of Columbus these days; no surprise, considering former Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson is now the Blue Jackets’ GM. The Toronto Sun also suggested Tarnstrom as a possible replacement for injured Bryan McCabe.

The week ahead – It’s a light week throughout the division, owing to the Christmas holiday and the dark nights on the schedule Monday and Tuesday.

The Wild and Canucks are the busiest teams with three games each. The Wild hosts the Rangers on Thursday and Red Wings on Saturday, then visits Dallas on Wednesday. The Canucks host the Stars on Thursday, followed by back-to-back road games Saturday and Sunday, at Phoenix and Colorado.

The Flames will try to follow up their successful road trip with some victories at home. They host Dallas on Friday and New Jersey on Sunday.

The Oilers host the Devils on Friday, then visit the Blackhawks on Sunday.

The Avalanche hosts the Rangers on Friday and the Canucks on Sunday. 

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