SUN Hockey Pool

Lessons learned halfway through season

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 12:40 AM ET

CALGARY -- Like Santa Claus, the perfect NHL season is a figment of the imagination.

It just doesn't exist.

But when inevitable low points come the Calgary Flames' way, head coach Brent Sutter sees lessons being learned.

And 40 games into the season -- with tonight's contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Saddledome marking the official halfway point of the year -- there have been plenty.

A rough month of December showed what happens when the team gets away from his philosophy of ensuring strong play without the puck and in the defensive areas of the game.

They lost eight of their first 11 games.

Recently, the Flames have shown what happens when they stick to the plan as a team, winning three straight before the calendar turned to 2010.

"It's just another lesson that is learned through actions," Sutter said. "You can talk about it all you want, but you've got to take lessons from when things aren't going well.

"That's maybe the most valuable lessons you do learn -- learn through adversity."

So Flames fans will see over the next 42 contests whether they can put what they've learned into practise more consistently.

"When we play a real good team game and everyone's on board and doing it that way, the team has success," said Sutter.

"That has to come paramount over everything else."

Strong goaltending is the biggest factor in the team's sixth-place standing with a 2.35 goals-against average.

Their 23 wins and 51 points have them sitting fifth in the Western Conference and in striking distance of first in the Northwest Division.

But an average of 30.2 shots against per game (tied for 16th in the league) shows the inconsistencies they've struggled through over the first half, as does the 2.72 goals per game they're averaging on offence (good for 16th as well).

"We definitely haven't had our best hockey at times. We've had some tough stretches where we haven't played well," said centre Craig Conroy.

"But we're right there in the standings.

"We know exactly what we need to do: What works well for this team; why we win; when we win, who's doing it.

"It's a team effort."

Winger Rene Bourque, who has been the most consistent forward with 14 goals and 34 points in 34 games so far, agrees it's up to each individual to play the same way.

"When we're struggling, it's easy to see we're not playing well as a team, and not playing well defensively. It's pretty evident from our record before these last three games.

"We want to play strong defensively. We want to give up as few goals as we can."

Trying too hard to score might be what got them in trouble at times in the first half of the season.

"We'll score our share of goals," said Sutter. "There was so much talk about the Calgary Flames haven't been scoring a lot of goals. All of a sudden, instead of sticking to our system, staying with it, we got off track because we suddenly started thinking in other ways.

"Every team wants to score but they have to do it within an environment they can have success at.

"It doesn't work the other way. We tried it for two weeks, and it showed how bad of a hockey team we are.

"When we do it the right way, it shows that we're a good team."


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