SUN Hockey Pool

Painful lessons learned

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Despite the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, it was the best thing that could have happened to the Calgary Flames.

We're not talking about the 4-1 win in Minnesota Saturday night.

Much more critical was that three-game losing skid that preceded the Wild victory -- equal to their longest of the season -- provided clues into what makes this team tick.

Defeats in Vancouver, Manhattan and Long Island were humbling, discouraging and disappointing.

Yet, they were far from thrashings.

There were no great blowouts, no one-sided losses that shock the system.

They were tight clashes that saw the 'W' eked out by the other side because of a break here or there -- or small breakdown.

That all three were blown leads is most worrisome but the problems that caused those are fixable. And every player inside the Flames dressing room knows the steps to address them.

Against the Wild, there were leaps forward.

First of all, beating the Wild requires a club to stick to the game plan.

You have to beat your head into the wall until it crumbles and falls. There are no shortcuts, no cheap victories in Minny, exactly what the Flames needed for a reminder.

Flames hockey is about outworking, out-gritting and out-gutting the opposition.

It's about fighting, scratching and clawing for everything -- every inch of ice, every moment of puck possession, every goal.

Sure, the game wasn't a Monet, beautiful to view from every angle. However, especially considering the opposition, it was picture perfect.

The Flames overcame the adversity of an early deficit, worked constantly through the defenders -- wearing them down -- creating one scoring chance after another before eventually converting them.

It takes real fortitude to win in that manner, something GM/head coach Darryl Sutter could proudly point out to his charges.

"When we're a mentally tough team, it doesn't matter," he said after the win.

"In the first period, we had a five-on-three and Jarome (Iginla) missed the net on a set play and they came and scored on the five-on-three. If we're a weak group, we'll cave in and we're not."

Then there's the individual performances that came to the fore at the Xcel Energy Center.

Although he wasn't dominating on the scoresheet, Iginla provided one of his best games -- if not the best game -- in nearly two months. On top of his game-winning goal, the maligned captain was shooting (four shots on goal), hitting (three registered), blocking shots and winning faceoffs (seven of nine).

He was strong in the corners because he was playing with an edge, real signs he's about to break out of his prolonged slump.

In net, Miikka Kiprusoff wasn't flawless but was darn close, ruined only by a short-side goal while the Wild had a five-on-three powerplay.

His one-on-one showdown save on Marian Gaborik, seconds before the Flames hit the scoreboard, was a huge turning point.

Kristian Huselius, quiet through the first three-quarters of the road trip, was back creating offence, as was Daymond Langkow.

That's not to say the Flames are out of the woods and ready to become world beaters. Too many players aren't providing the offence they can and the need for Kiprusoff to come through with key saves will never disappear.

Most importantly, the margin for error, even when on top of their game, is too small for many victories in sub-par performances.

However, last week's disappointments, and the necessary response to end the slide, have all snapped into place.

As defenceman Rhett Warrener put it: "It is the kind of game we've been trying to win. We've been struggling to win those kinds of games, even though that's supposed to be our identity."

Expect to see more of the same, thanks to a little slide that reiterated the message.


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