Flames shut out of elite status

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

Constantly losing to the elite teams is the only thing keeping the Calgary Flames from becoming one.

Playing like one of the league's best since mid-November, they've reached the 50-point mark quicker than all but two past incarnations of the team.

Before dropping a 5-2 decision to the Blackhawks in Chicago, they strung together five straight victories, and went 10 games with at least a point to put themselves at the top of the Northwest Division.

They're a good team. Potentially a great team. The elements are all there: Scoring depth, strong goaltending, spectacular penalty killing.

But until they manage to compete consistently against the teams already earning elite status, the Flames will remain a team on the brink.

Holding a 2-5-2 record against teams in the league's top eight as of yesterday, the Flames are especially horrid against them on the road.

They eked out one-goal wins over the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins early in the season at the Saddledome, and took a single point after forcing OT in a home loss to the Blackhawks, but have lost all five games on the road against the 'Hawks, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens.

Boasting six skaters with double-digit goals -- Todd Bertuzzi joined that group during the two-game road trip in Nashville and Chicago -- the sixth-place Flames are arguably among the league's best in offensive depth. The Wings have a half-dozen with double-digit goals, and a seventh on the brink of breaking that 10-goal mark.

The Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers all have six.

With one more goal from Joe Thornton, tonight's opponent, the Sharks, will hit that mark, too.

In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff has provided consistent and sometimes spectacular play.

And with such a knack for killing penalties, the Flames have been winning in spite of a powerplay that often looks disorganized.

Jarome Iginla is no longer counted on to carry the team offensively. His numbers are still great, but Rene Bourque, Michael Cammalleri, Daymond Langkow, David Moss and Bertuzzi have all joined him with at least 10 goals before the midway mark.

And, as GM Darryl Sutter has pointed out, the game is simply about scoring more goals than the opposition.

The Flames own a goal-differential of plus-3.

There's no disputing the top clubs' amazing margins of plus-55 (Bruins), plus-43 (Sharks), plus-36 (Blackhawks), and plus-30 (Red Wings). And some of those big pluses have come against the Flames. The five regulation losses to the 'Hawks, Habs, Wings and Sharks this season have seen the Flames outduelled 26-7.

That's where these Flames have fallen short -- the battles with the best of the best.

If they want to be mentioned in that same vein, a win over the Sharks tonight would be a good starting point.


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