Flames stay hot on the road

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

MONTREAL — With the parity of today’s NHL, it’s supposed to be difficult to win on the road.

Tell that to the Calgary Flames.

Other than the 2003-04 campaign which saw the Flames go to the Stanley Cup finals, their road record has been between mediocre to awful since the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This season has been different.

Heading into Friday night’s game in Buffalo, the Flames have a 5-1-1 mark away from the Saddledome.

It’s not quite good enough to claim the title of road kings — that goes to the New Jersey Devils with their incredible 8-0 to start the season — but is impressive, nonetheless.

People may have grown tired of hearing the words “structure” and “system” when Brent Sutter took the helm, but the early season success away from Calgary is a direct result of what he’s been preaching.

“The important thing here is you form an identity with your team, how you’re going to play, and whether it’s at home or on the road, you’ve got to stay with it and play that way. That allows you to have success on the road,” Sutter said yesterday. “With that, you don’t get rattled when you’re playing. You trust what your team’s doing.

“That’s what we’ve been building here, more trust with one another. It shouldn’t matter whether we’re playing in Montreal or Calgary or wherever. This is the way we have to play.”

Sure, the Flames have played only seven of 41 road games this season, but consider they have won as many games as the Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild have combined.

“You see guys are really getting used to the system now and buying in,” said left-winger Nigel Dawes. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is our neutral-zone play. We’re not turning pucks over and getting pucks up the ice. Plus, we’re getting those turnovers — getting the pucks back — and creating offence. We’ve given up fewer chances, seem to be able to get things going quicker and spending less time in our own end.

“We’re learning you can still play well defensively and still get chances offensively, if not more, because of it.”

Probably the biggest factor of late, though, has been the goaltending the Flames have received.

Curtis McElhinney got the ball rolling in the right direction in that 3-2 overtime victory early last week agains Dallas, and then Miikka Kiprusoff has been a deserved first star in each of his past three starts — which included victories in St. Louis (2-1) and Montreal (1-0).

“I don’t think we really play that differently on the road,” Dawes said. “But as a group, we know how important the road record is through the whole season.

“It does seem our games on the road are a little tighter, close-scoring, but we’ve been playing well. You want to go into other teams’ buildings and be a tough team to play against. Early this season, that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Still, they still have plenty to keep striving for.

The Colorado Avalanche’s fast start put the Flames behind the Northwest Division pace, but they have the chance to reel in the Avs if they can finish their road swing with wins in Buffalo and Toronto.

“You look at the way teams have jumped out of the gate this year, you’re just trying to keep up,” said defenceman Cory Sarich. “We’ve won some games lately, our record is solid, and we’re still not quite where we want to be.

“You want to be on top That’s what we’re shooting for.”


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