Time for directions

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Spring is just around the corner in Calgary. You can tell because soon all those gophers will be bursting from their burrows to become road kill.

Much like the Calgary Flames have been this season.

The fate of the poor gophers is easy to understand: Not many rodents will win a battle with a speeding car.

The Flames situation, however, isn't as easy to comprehend.

It's been an ongoing mystery this season as to how a team that's the NHL's best at home is so awful on the road.

Going into tonight's tilt against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Flames have the second-worst point total in road games with a 7-15-7 mark. Only the Los Angeles Kings are worse. The Florida Panthers are the only team that hasn't tallied more road victories.

That lack of success away from the 'Dome is costing the Flames big time. It would take a disastrous collapse and a huge turnaround by the likes of Edmonton, Colorado or St. Louis for the Flames to miss the playoffs but it is still a possibility.

Even with a ticket punched to the post-season, Calgary's hockey heroes will have a short playoff run if they don't start winning on the road.

With that in mind, here are six areas the team must improve in order to start racking up victories on the road.

- Special team woes:

This has been partially fixed. The powerplay has turned it around after a slow start. The penalty killing is back to abysmal, surrendering too many goals at the wrong time.

The road penalty killing is currently 27th at 76.1%. At home, they're 83.8%, good for an acceptable 14th spot.

- Sluggish starts:

Before each game, the importance of taking control early is a major point of discussion. All too often, it's been empty words.

Looking at Tuesday's game against Colorado, they surrendered 19 shots on goal in the first period.

To make matters worse, they often they come out of intermissions sluggish.

- Defensive coverage:

Watch how often an opposing player scores from the slot with Flames defenders around him but not providing coverage. Watch how often trailing players go right past Flames defenders into scoring position.

It's easy to pin it on the defencemen but there are a few forwards not pulling their weight in the defensive zone. As a team, they're allowing nearly four shots per game more on the road than at home.

- Goaltending:

Miikka Kiprusoff is among the league leaders in every statistical category of note. That doesn't mean he's been at his best on the road.

It was a backbreaker for his team to be down 3-2 after the first period Tuesday thanks to a weak Milan Hejduk backhander that went five hole in the final minute.

Kiprusoff has been good but not Vezina great and allowing an extra goal per game on the road takes a toll.

- Board games:

Physical battles still make a difference between winning and losing in the NHL and many aren't going the Flames' way on the road.

Victory comes at a price, usually bruises and welts, and many of those stem from a willingness to fight in the tough areas.

The resulting improved forecheck would help the defensive game, too.

- Shootouts:

The good news for the Flames is shootouts don't come into play in the playoffs. At least, not yet.

The Flames have been horrible, losing all five shootouts this season.

Calgary's lack of shootout success is two-fold; Kiprusoff has struggled -- stopping only two of 10 shots against -- in four shootouts. The players haven't been much better, scoring only four goals in 20 chances.


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