Flames halfway there

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

As disappointing as the first 40 games have been for the Calgary Flames, here are a few encouraging thoughts for the faithful.

The Flames may not have achieved the success expected of them to this point, but they are only one point back of last year's pace.

As well, they are only three back of the rate Darryl Sutter said is nearly a guarantee you'll make the playoffs -- 12 points for every 10 games.

Best of all, they're gaining steam. Of the five Northwest Division teams, nobody can match the 16 points the Flames garnered in their last 10 outings.

The true midway point of the season for Calgary won't come until after tonight's meeting with the New York Rangers at the Saddledome, but we're close enough to have something of a read on the situation. Here's a quick breakdown:

THE OFFENCE

It's been something of a roller-coaster ride through the first three months.

In October, the Flames were among the NHL's most prolific teams. In November, they went through a swoon that brought flashbacks to the seven-year playoff drought. In December, they were back on a roll, scoring 46 goals in 14 games.

Prior to yesterday's action, Calgary was fifth in the Western Conference in goals-per-game average and 10th in the league.

Jarome Iginla is deservedly gaining attention as a MVP candidate, sitting third in the league in goals (27) and tied for second in points (53). He's on pace for career numbers in those categories, He's also leading the team in the plus-minus category.

At issue, though, is the production behind him. Kristian Huselius and top-scoring defenceman Dion Phaneuf are on pace for similar seasons to last year, while Alex Tanguay, Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy are behind their expected standard.

Surprising fact: The Flames have scored six fewer goals through 40 games than they compiled last season.

THE DEFENCE

In 2005-06, the Flames were the NHL's stingiest team. Last year, they finished 11th in that category. As of yesterday, they were sitting 21st, allowing an average of 2.88 goals per game, a full half-goal worse than two seasons prior.

The easy out is to pin that problem -- and it is a problem -- solely on goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Kiprusoff has indeed struggled, with a 2.82 goals-against average and .895 save percentage, well off his usual pace.

His case is made worse by the fact the Flames have done such an outstanding job reducing shots against. They've allowed an average of 26.5 pucks on net, tied for fourth best in the league. By comparison, last season they were 21st in that category, allowing 30.5 shots per game.

That said, it's not a one-man show keeping the puck out of the net. Every member of the defence corps has had their struggles and costly gaffes.

Part of that was the fact three newcomers were added, four if you note David Hale played only 11 games last season after a trade-deadline deal brought him to Calgary.

It's taken time for the blueline brigade to get in sync with each other, but at least the signs are there something's going right.

Surprising fact: Kiprusoff hasn't recorded a shutout yet this season, and has started 44 games since his last doughnut, a 1-0 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild March 27, 2007 -- a win that saved the team's season. Two years ago, he doubled the previous franchise record with 10 goose eggs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It took eight tilts for the Flames to have a perfect penalty killing game -- and that was against the Edmonton Oilers. They managed that feat only twice in the first 17 contests. The Flames are still below 80% on the PK.

In December, they were considerably better. The PK boasted a respectable 84.5% rate for the month and in the last seven games, allowed only four goals.

The powerplay has been hovering in the middle third of the league all year. The perfect six-game road trip was certainly a highlight, in which the team scored at an impressive 30.4% clip (7-for-23), but otherwise it's been middle of the road.

Surprising fact: At one point, the team went 20 road powerplay chances between goals, yet Calgary is still 14th in the league when it comes to PP success away from home.

HOME PLAY

Last year, the Flames were the only team in the league to win 30 games at home. The year before, they were one of only three teams to reach that standard.

Through their first 22 games at the 'Dome this season, the Flames have won only nine times (9-7-6). They're yet to win three straight at home, and have won consecutive games on only three occasions.

When they beat Anaheim 5-3 in a come-from-behind effort Saturday, Huselius said the importance of gaining a bit of confidence was as big as anything.

Surprising fact: Calgary has gone to the dressing room after the first period holding a lead in only four of those 22 games. By comparison, they've trailed after the first on 11 occasions.

ROAD PLAY

It's not far-fetched to say the club's perfect six-game trek in the middle of December likely saved its season. By tying the franchise record with wins in Chicago, Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, St. Louis and Columbus, the team pulled itself out of a hole. When they left for that sojourn, they were 13th in the conference. They returned sitting seventh -- where they remain today.

The road performance so far is vastly improved from last year, when a 13-20-4 mark nearly cost the Flames a playoff spot. The funny thing is the club is only marginally better in goals-for and goals-against compared to the home numbers. Last year, the difference in those categories between at home and on the road were astronomical.

Surprising fact: In their last seven road games, Calgary has outscored the opposition 11-4 in the third period.


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