Flames must bring road show to 'Dome

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

Their early-morning return to Calgary meant an off day for the Flames.

If you may, a chance to savour their tasty six-pack -- a perfect six-game road trip.

In the aftermath of the team's 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night to end the successful sojourn, netminder Miikka Kiprusoff succinctly summed up what the trip meant.

"We're higher in the standings," said the never loose-lipped goalie.

We would have called it season-saving, but then again maybe Kiprusoff is right to somewhat downplay the team's record-tying trip.

For all the excitement and elation surrounding the team, a look at the standings yesterday morning was a sobering experience.

The Flames are still fourth in the Northwest Division, only four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and still stuck behind Minnesota, Vancouver and Colorado.

The deficit is nowhere near as big as it was before they headed out, but all those rivals have at least one game in hand.

The Flames did manage to pull out of their hole, but by no means are they free and clear.

And they know it.

"It just gets us back in the thick of things," said left winger Alex Tanguay. "That's what we were looking to do. It's great timing before Christmas -- we've got a couple more games. It makes everybody happy for the holidays.

"We were trying to get back in the middle of the pack where we could hopefully have a shot at winning the division and have a shot at having some home-ice advantage and making the playoffs."

Consider part of that plan accomplished. After all, they were no more than one point back of any team in their division prior to last night's games.

With more than half the season remaining, the goal of a division title is now very realistic.

However, they'll need to continue those winning ways, with a chance to do just that tomorrow night at the Saddledome against the Dallas Stars.

OK, not necessarily run the table through the final 47 games -- that's not reasonable -- but it's important the Flames don't go back to their old ways.

Not to be a wet blanket on the festivities, but the Flames have hardly been a strong squad at the 'Dome this season. Their 7-7-4 home record is nowhere near the expectations -- even reasonable expectations -- and well back of the marks cobbled together over the past two seasons.

All the Flames have to do is more of the same displayed during their road swing, with a few improvements.

The improved powerplay and penalty killing has been a great step forward. As was the goaltending from Kiprusoff, improved defensive play -- especially from Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich -- and fantastic offensive production from Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius, who combined for 31 points in those six games.

Still, that won't be enough going forward.

As great as the top trio has been, they can't do it alone, so the supporting cast -- especially the likes of Tanguay, Craig Conroy, Owen Nolan and Matthew Lombardi -- must start chipping in with more regularity.

Defensively, too, there are issues to address. In only one of the six road games did the Flames limit the opposition to fewer than 30 shots on goal.

Seeing as the club pointed to a reduced shot count in the games leading up to the six-game winning streak as a sign better days were ahead, that statistic should be a warning light.

Plus, there is the risk of complacency, and not just the relief of a fantastic road trip. That was a long road swing at a difficult time of year.

"Our goal was to be back in the playoff race by Christmas," said defenceman Adrian Aucoin. "It's a little early right now but just knowing that we're back there, now we're climbing.

"We're not looking behind us. We're looking ahead of us, which is huge."

And just imagine what the reaction in this city will be should the Flames continue to rack up victories.

Head coach Mike Keenan can.

"Coming back home, we hope to build on that momentum," Keenan said during a conference call yesterday.

"With that kind of support here, you can really gain some momentum in this building because of the energy in the building."


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