Flames faves for first

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Don't be fooled by the October optimism from Edmonton, Minnesota and Colorado.

It's a two-horse race between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks for the Northwest Division.

(Actually, we're not sure legitimate optimism exists in Colorado about the Avs).

It's a race the Flames have the inside track to win by a nose, but the difference has nothing to do with goaltending, scoring depth, special teams or coaching.

It's the schedule.

The Flames have a charitable 82-game slate compared to the bear of a schedule the Canucks are facing.

Before anybody takes the time to find out whether the Flames will travel more than any other team in the league -- those short two-game trips to places like Chicago and Columbus or Minnesota and Detroit really add air miles -- consider the crazy schedule Vancouver has to face thanks to the Olympics. After playing a Jan. 27 game at home against St. Louis, the Canucks don't skate on GM Place ice for a game until March 13.

Even though the world won't descend on Vancouver for a couple of weeks starting Feb. 12, the Canucks will be nomads for six weeks.

One two-week trip per season is tough on a team.

Two of them is murder.

Those long homestands in November (five games), December (eight games) and late March (five games) aren't as beneficial as you'd think, either. Hockey players are kinetic, and too much time in one place makes life stale.

Plus, with a handful of Canucks good possibilities to skate for their countries at the Games, such as Roberto Luongo, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Sami Salo, Mikael Samuelsson, Alex Edler and Ryan Kesler, a big chunk of their core won't rest much, either.

Calgary has a golden chance to make something happen early in the season with eight of 12 on home ice this month. Provided the Flames have a solid start, they should skate away with a title.

Here are this corner's predictions for the Western Conference standings, in order.

In: San Jose, Chicago, Calgary, Detroit, Vancouver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Edmonton.

Out: Columbus, Anaheim, Minnesota, Phoenix, Nashville, Dallas, Colorado.

Flaming C-notes

Anybody else still trying to figure out how TSN put the Flames 17th in its pre-season rankings? That meant behind Edmonton, Florida and Columbus. It's been a couple of weeks and we're still scratching our heads ... For all those pundits who say the Flames lost too much offence, rethink mentioning Todd Bertuzzi. Big Bert scored 15 goals all season, while in prime position to score them, either on the top line or second line and on the powerplay. As well, five of those goals came in the first five games. To be fair, he scored two shootout winners. However, when you add up the stupid penalties, it's pretty much a wash. Replacing the 39 goals Michael Cammalleri scored won't be easy. Replacing Bertuzzi's contribution won't be very difficult, and the Flames will do it for half the price ... Could be off-base here, but should the NHLPA consider hiring Theoren Fleury to help work with players who have alcohol problems? ... The biggest disappointment of Flames training camp this year was the lack of players who really made it tough on the brass to send them down to the minors. Kyle Greentree and David Van der Gulik weren't effective, while John Armstrong's injury took him out of the mix. It's good to see Jason Jaffray rewarded for his strong camp with a spot on the opening-day roster, but other than Jaffray, Jamie Lund- mark and Brett Sutter, too many players didn't take their best swing at a roster spot.

You don't say

"Nothing weird, but I haven't slept with six guys for a long time."

-- Montreal Canadiens winger Michael Cammalleri on his team's recent bonding session

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA

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FARM REPORT

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN ABBOTSFORD

The Abbotsford Heat open their regular season a week from tonight and were perfect through the pre-season with a pair of wins over the Manitoba Moose (Vancouver's farm team) and another against the University of British Columbia.

Carsen Germyn led the Heat to a 5-2 win last Friday with a three-goal outing. Mikael Backlund had a four-point outing (1-3-4) and hometown product David Van der Gulik netted a goal and two assists.

Two nights later, Brad Cole scored twice and Hugo Carpentier had a goal and three assists in a 6-4 win over the Moose.

Abbotsford finished the pre-season with a 3-2 win over UBC in which Brett Palin, Cam Cunning and Carpentier scored.


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