Flames great out of gate

Craig Conroy and Jay Bouwmeester have reason to smile. The Flames are filling the net and racking...

Craig Conroy and Jay Bouwmeester have reason to smile. The Flames are filling the net and racking up wins. Imagine how good they might be when they settle into Brent Sutter's new system. (Sun Media/Al Charest)

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

Yet to play their best hockey, the Calgary Flames are on the brink of their best start to a season.

With one more victory Saturday night against the Edmonton Oilers, the current version would match the most impressive 10-game march set by the 2001-02 Flames in what, coincidentally, also happened to be an Olympic year.

That edition of the Flames set a 7-2-1 foundation, but couldn't keep the pace and finished out of the playoffs with 32 wins, 35 regulation losses, three more in overtime, and a dozen ties.

As well, they lost their 11th game after that start, meaning if this year's Flames win the next two, they set a benchmark.

This year's group will likely flirt with 50 wins -- something only accomplished by the franchise once back in their Stanley Cup winning season of 1988-89.

Predicting such a fantastic finish isn't based on any mathematical formula.

Racking up their impressive record thus far thanks to a potent offence that has had no trouble making up for the free-agent losses of Michael Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi, you can only imagine how much easier it will be to earn victories when the defensive side of Brent Sutter's system finally becomes habitual.

Starting this season with 13 of a possible 18 points is a direct result of the depth the Flames boast.

They find themselves tied with the deadly New York Rangers atop the NHL with 35 goals through nine games -- an average of 3.89 per contest -- and the Flames have yet to outshoot an opponent.

Jarome Iginla started that 2001-02 season with five goals and eight points in his first 10 games, spurring him to capture the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies with a 52-goal, 96-point campaign.

He was a one-man show back then. With three points in the Flames' 6-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday, Iginla nearly doubled his early season production to jump into the team's top three.

But he isn't being leaned on to lead the offence anymore. His timely contributions are considered a bonus these days.

Rene Bourque leads the Flames with 11 points. Nine members of the team have at least two goals, and defenceman Dion Phaneuf is setting the early pace with five.

Only three regulars have yet to score -- defencemen Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr, and Craig Conroy. All but seventh defenceman Aaron Johnson, who made his Flames debut Tuesday, have at least a point.

But forget about the spread of scoring that has guys like Mark Giordano, Freddie Sjostrom, Nigel Dawes, Brandon Prust, Brian McGrattan, Eric Nystrom and Dustin Boyd all just a few points apart.

It's the defensive side of things that will take them to the elite class of hockey clubs they've been striving for since teasing this city with a Stanley Cup final appearance in 2004.

"These guys have worked hard. It's been an adjustment period for all of them," head coach Brent Sutter said.

"Their commitment is there and we've been able to find ways to win. We've been able to score goals, but we know we've got to keep our goals against down."

It's getting there.

Six of the last eight goals against the Flames have come on special teams. In five-on-five action, their defensive confidence has been on the upswing, and it hasn't stopped them from scoring, either.

"Brent did say when he came in, it's not one or the other," said Iginla. "His goal with us was to get better defensively and be better positionally, but it wasn't gonna take away from the offence."

The way things are going, even if they fail to match their best start, the Flames could be in for their best finish.

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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