First and festive

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

The Christmas season was a great homecoming for the Calgary Flames.

Not only was the turkey and trimmings good eats to start a spell at the Saddledome, they had a blast with a near-spotless stretch right through singing Auld Lang Syne.

Thanks to a 4-0-1 run through the club's longest homestand of the season, the Flames wrapped up nine of a possible 10 points and took hold of top spot in the Northwest Division.

Now comes a tougher task: Continuing those winning ways outside the Stampede City.

"I think you can always gain momentum, no matter if you're playing at home or on the road in terms of the confident feeling the group can acquire because of successes," said head coach Mike Keenan.

"Hockey is a game of momentum, so we can now continue this type of production we've had recently and get some good results on the road."

Keenan's troops went through their paces with an early practice at the 'Dome -- 9 a.m. is early by NHL standards -- before heading out to face the Nashville Predators this afternoon and Chicago Blackhawks tomorrow.

It's a team riding a four-game winning streak and has garnered points in its last nine games (6-0-3).

While the Flames are near the top of the league in home winning percentage, their road success isn't at the same level.

At 9-7-1 away from Calgary, it's nothing to gripe about, but could be better.

Certainly playing the same way they did during the five-game homestand would improve that situation.

"We've got a confident bunch of guys in here and a lot of depth," said left winger Curtis Glencross.

"As long as we go out and play the game we can play, we'll be very successful whether it's on the road or at home."

Traditionally, the return from New Year's festivities means the level of play around the NHL increases a notch or two, even if it's the dog days.

"January's usually a hectic month and usually when the grind starts to happen," said defenceman Cory Sarich.

"Play picks up because there are a lot of teams that get desperate because of where they sit in the standings, and there are teams looking to separate themselves -- make moves up so they can't be caught.

"This is the moving time of year, where you see a lot of what happens at the end of the year, playoff matchups. I would say this is a critical time."

For the Flames, an emotional boost comes from looking at the standings and seeing they have built a lead on the rest of the division, and have three games in hand on the closest competitors -- the Vancouver Canucks.

"At this point of the year, if you haven't figured out your game as a team, you could probably be in trouble," Sarich explained.

"If you are at the top of your division, you've obviously got things going and figured out what works for you. You get a taste of it and don't want to give it up."

For the Flames, that means more of the same things they've done right.

By no means have they played flawless hockey, but there are elements to their game that have hit a higher gear.

Glencross returned last game after missing a half-dozen games and, while he was out of action, noticed key parts of his team's play that go beyond goals for and goals against.

"Our transition game's come a long way," Glencross said.

"It seems like we are quick up through the neutral zone. Even our breakouts have been crisper."


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