SUN Hockey Pool

It's that time of year ...

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:27 AM ET

There are teams that look great in December, piling up points, soaking up accolades and cruising along like nothing is ever going to slow them down.

Then the playoffs come. And you never hear from them again.

Darryl Sutter's Calgary Flames are just the opposite. They're about as flashy as a used pickup during the regular season, but meet up with them in the spring, when toughness, defence, goaltending and error free hockey are the keys to survival, and more often than not they'll run you right over.

PHYSICAL PLAY

"This team is built around hard work and character and physical play,'' said defenceman Bryan Marchment, after the Flames, playing their second game in as many nights, walked into Rexall Place and dumped the Oilers 4-1.

"Our coaching staff puts together a system and if we stick to it we're successful.''

In what was supposed to be an era of offence - stretch passes, unobstructed lanes and more time for shots from better angles - the Flames have stayed true to their roots: Defence and goaltending.

Like mullets and high collars, they're out of style in the new NHL, but like Ryan Smyth and Don Cherry, they don't care.

"We never really changed our attitude from the previous season, new rules or not,'' said Andrew Ference, who had a goal and an assist in the win. "We didn't change the philosophy that defence will win games, that keeping the puck out of your own net will make you more consistently successful than trying to score a bundle.

BREAKING THEM DOWN

"It's just a matter of breaking the other team down, waiting for mistakes and making them make mistakes. As long as we score one more than our opponent it's not a concern to us to be a huge offensive threat.''

Good, because, aside from the odd anomaly, like the six they sifted past Colorado on Friday, or the four they put past Dwayne Roloson last night, they're not. There are only four teams in the NHL with fewer than 200 goals, bottom feeders Columbus, St, Louis, Chicago and the division-leading Flames, whose 199 are almost 100 behind the Ottawa Senators.

"We take pride in being a good defensive team,'' said rookie blueliner Dion Phaneuf, who fits right into Sutter blueprint. "Good defence creates offence and that's something we take pride in, shutting other teams down.''

Like last night.

"Their game plan because we played last night was to come at us early and be physical, and they did that,'' said Sutter. "We got through that and our goalie made some really good saves early.''

They've been nagged about their woeful lack of offence all year. Told they can't succeed like this, trying to win every game 2-1 or 3-1. Not consistently. Not in the new NHL.

SNOW IS MELTING

But they've made it this far, and now that the snow is melting, the scales might be tilting in their favour. The playoffs are tough, low scoring and tight checking, the kind of stuff Sutter has been preaching, and the Flames have been playing, since September.

"In this time of year there are a lot more one-goal games and there is a lot more meaning in them,'' said Jarome Iginla. "We've grown accustomed to these and you learn to enjoy them. As the pressure gets more and more we can draw on the fact we've been doing this all year.''

It's too late to change now, the trade deadline is long since passed. The Flames will either live or die with defence and goaltending in the new NHL's first post-season.

"We definitely don't have to change our game at all for the playoffs,'' said Ference.


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