SUN Hockey Pool

Ference standing tall

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

It has been a career year for Andrew Ference.

Heading into tonight's clash with the Nashville Predators at the Saddledome (7 p.m., pay-per-view), the diminutive defenceman boasts personal bests in assists and points and needs one more goal to tie his career high in that category.

Ference is also coming off a game during which he was given 27:52 of ice time -- his single-game high this season -- against the likes of stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks.

With injury troubles keeping Roman Hamrlik out of the lineup for nearly half of the season so far, Ference has had to step up his game in both ends of the ice.

Despite his lack of size, the 5-ft. 10-in., 195-pounder has surpassed his status as a supposed sixth defenceman on arguably the league's best unit.

"His overall game has been very good this year," said Flames assistant coach Rich Preston, who has at times called Ference a "pit bull" and "pound-for-pound the best defenceman in the league." "He's not the biggest guy in the world. I think the new rules help.

"With a smaller defenceman, positioning is key. He's not going to win a battle with Bertuzzi in the corner but positioning and using his stick the way he does makes up for a lot of weight."

His even-strength partner, Rhett Warrener, knows the secret to Ference's success.

"He's playing with me," joked the more physically intimidating blueliner. "No, the way he plays is great. He might not be the biggest guy out there but he plays like he's the biggest. He plays with confidence and he plays with purpose."

Ference's tenacious play in the corners and behind the net has been a factor in helping the Flames post the second-lowest goals-against average in the league thus far -- just .01 behind Ottawa heading into last night's slate.

Ference's minus-3 rating on the season is a little misleading -- he is a plus-1 since January -- although the d-man admits he has had hiccups along the way.

"There've been rough patches, no doubt, where I've had to pick up my game and reassess what I'm doing out there," said Ference, who credits his coaching staff for his development over the past few months.

"There's been less of those. There's been, I think, a little bit more consistency of good, solid play. That's from coaching and that's from a lot of video work. Having (assistant coach Jim Playfair) work with me a lot and (Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter) making sure I don't get into those funks.

"If I didn't have this kind of situation in Calgary, with our d-corps and the coaching staff that we have, it's so much easier to get into longer funks and not know how to get yourself out of it."

Where Ference has perhaps contributed the most this season is on the powerplay in Hamrlik's absence. The 26-year-old has earned 16 of his 27 points while on the man-advantage, usually alongside rookie blueliner Dion Phaneuf.

"It's kind of a bonus," said Ference of his time on the powerplay.

"You get that time if your game is sharp."


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