Where's the D?

RANDY SPORTAK, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

If the inflated numbers were stock quotes, people would be thrilled.

But since the digits in question are the Calgary Flames' goals against over the last couple of weeks, nobody is celebrating.

Before embarking on their mid-December road swing, the Flames were among the stingiest in the league, surrendering an average of 2.3 goals per game.

Since that time, their goals-against average is now more in line with that of the porous Philadelphia Flyers.

Over the last eight games, 30 pucks have bulged the twine behind Calgary's netminders -- 24 of those in the last half-dozen outings alone.

Score one for Miikka Kiprusoff, who's been between the pipes for all but one of those outings, for his willingness to take the blame.

"It starts with goaltending," he said after yesterday's optional practice in advance of tonight's New Year's Eve tilt against the Edmonton Oilers at the 'Dome. "That's my problem there. I'm able to play better than I've been playing the last few games."

Certainly the reigning Vezina Trophy winner hasn't been at his best of late. Want an example? How about the last four goals he surrendered on nine shots Wednesday night in Vancouver during a 6-5 OT loss.

He surrendered four more against Los Angeles, two in the final 38 seconds, Friday night before leaving the ice in anger.

"I want to get my goals-against down. To do it, I have to work hard and have a good game (tonight against Edmonton)," he said. "I'm 100 percent (healthy). If we win, it doesn't matter if it's 6-5 or whatever but I'm able to play better."

The blame game, though, goes further than Kiprusoff and it's awfully difficult to find a player in the Calgary dressing room who'll pin any the team's defensive struggles on the star netminder.

"It's ludicrous," said defenceman Andrew Ference. "We've got the best goalie in the league.

"You look at some of the goals that have been scored and there's been some pretty crazy bounces lately. You're gonna get that in a season. Overall, if you look at the goals-against, the solid, good teams still have a low goals-against and we're one of them."

The Flames have quietly climbed to the top half of the NHL in goals for per game but it's come at the expense of the their solid defensive play.

That, according to head coach Jim Playfair, has been caused by a variety of elements, including their effort at the other end of the rink.

"Miikka recognizes where he can improve his individual play and it's important he does that but the second part of that is it's important our team stays aggressive on the forecheck, aggressive on the tracking and quick and aggressive in our defensive zone to allow us to be a good team," Playfair said. "That all plays in to Miikka expecting more from himself.

"I think the perception is playing defence is just about the defensive zone but that's not true. It's about having no turnovers in the neutral zone, establishing your forecheck, being quick and hard and fast on pucks in the offensive zone, tracking. All those things play into being a good defensive team and when we get away from that, it shows up in goals against."

Calgary's injury woes -- as many as six regulars have been out over the last three weeks, including three top-six defencemen -- hasn't helped the cause.

Still, said Ference, putting their whole game back in order will begin with individual elements going back in place.

"As soon as one part of the game does struggle, it affects our wins and wins goes hand-in-hand with goals against," Ference stated. "If our forecheck struggles for a while, goals against goes up because it's puck possession, not spending time in their zone and wearing other teams down.

"It's like if your defensive zone play is struggling, not getting shots on goal, or if your special teams are struggling."

The plan of attack begins with each player concentrating solely on their own responsibilities.

"If you're worrying about your linemates, or you're worrying about your goalie or your goalie worrying about the defence -- whatever combination you come up with -- that's what poor teams do," he said.


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