Plenty of good at Flames midway point

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:08 PM ET

The Calgary Flames have reached the midway point.

There have been highs — beating San Jose 2-1 in early December — and lows — two disappointing losses to Chicago — and all spots in between.

Still, as they head into Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators, the Flames are in a strong situation.

Thanks to their four-game winning streak capped by Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, they are back in the hunt for the Northwest Division crown — one point back of Colorado and with two games in hand.

Moreover, they have developed into the team head coach Brent Sutter envisioned when he took over as head coach.

Certainly, the Flames aren’t where they need to be and are still not quite in the upper crust along with the squads in San Jose and Chicago, but they’re on track.

Time will tell whether they derail again, in the manner of what we saw through most of December, or keep chugging along, if not gaining steam toward the playoffs.

What we can do is look back at the season to this point.

Most Valuable Player

This is a slam dunk. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has been strong all season. Sure, there have been a few blips along the way, but the netminder who has been maligned for early season struggles in past campaigns has shut the door more often than not while his team worked to grasp the system head coach Brent Sutter wanted to implement. Kiprusoff is among the league leaders in wins (21), goals-against average (2.16) and save percentage (.928).

MVP runner-up

Rene Bourque had his first 20-goal season last year, and expectations were he’d at least duplicate that feat. Bourque is on pace for nearly 30 this year, and had he not missed a half-dozen games would very likely have more than 14 goals and 34 points at this stage. Bourque was the club’s best forward in October, and it’s worth noting he has as many powerplay goals (three) as shorthanded tallies. He doesn’t have the big name to be a Selke Trophy winner, but should receive consideration.

Most under-rated player

So much has been made about the club’s big three defencemen — Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr — but the one blueliner who has surpassed expectations the most is Giordano.

Offensively, he’s collected as many points as Phaneuf (17) and has one more than Bouwmeester’s total. While Phaneuf has created the usual buzz and rebounded after a disappointing season of a year ago, and Bouwmeester hasn’t provided as much offence as he’s capable of — although he’s doing just fine in the defensive zone — Giordano has steadily been the perfect fourth man in the defensive corps. Even better for the team, he has one more year on his contract with a very friendly salary cap hit of US$892,000.

Biggest disappointment

Team-wise, it has to be the fact the Flames can’t beat Chicago, a club they would very likely have to upend to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Individually, it’s Olli Jokinen, without a doubt.

Jokinen has all the tools to be a No.-1 centre, and his skill should have meshed with Iginla — even if they’re both better shooters than passers — but it’s never materialized. The good news for Calgary is he is combining with Rene Bourque and Nigel Dawes to give Calgary two potent lines, but Jokinen must be better in the second half of the season. Another 41 games with seven goals and 27 points won’t cut it.

The Sutter factor

Within the first day of training camp, it was obvious Brent Sutter was going to have a major impact. It may only be his third season as a NHL coach, but Sutter has gained respect for knowing his stuff. The Flames are a much more structured team than a year ago, and for proof you only have to look at the number of 2-1 games they’ve played this season. Sutter is also more of a players’ coach than people realize. He wants to praise his charges and wants them to enjoy their victories.

All the while, he’s ready to put down the hammer if they stray from the gameplan. From a coaching perspective, this team is the closest it’s been to the squad that went to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 and was the top defensive team in 2005-06. Currently, the Flames are sixth in league goals against. Last year, they were 23rd.

Changes needed

The powerplay has not been good enough, even though they actually practice it this season, while offensively they need another winger to regularly score goals. As well, depth players such as Eric Nystrom and Dustin Boyd have to contribute in the manner they did in the early going.

But most importantly, the top players such as Jarome Iginla (21 goals and 41 points in 41 games), Daymond Langkow, Jokinen Phaneuf and Bouwmeester must be better. All have been OK or shown spurts of getting to OK in Jokinen’s case, but not at the top level they can reach.


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