Flames halfway to where?

Minnesota Wild's Josh Harding makes a save on Roman Horak, of the Calgary Flames, during NHL hockey...

Minnesota Wild's Josh Harding makes a save on Roman Horak, of the Calgary Flames, during NHL hockey in Calgary, Alberta, on December 20, 2011. (AL CHAREST/QMI AGENCY)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:41 PM ET

The Calgary Flames have 42 games in the books and 40 to go.

They also have 41 points.

In the NHL, an 18-18-5 record is called .500, which should mean right in the middle. Instead, the Flames are sitting 12th in the Western Conference, four points back of eighth place prior to Wednesday's action.

"If we continue on that pace, we're not going to make playoffs. Historically, you're looking for 92 to 95 points," said defenceman Chris Butler. "The frustrating thing is we feel like we're beating ourselves sometimes. We're making mental errors that are costing us points. At the beginning of the season, we just flat-out weren't playing well, and that's disappointing."

Certainly, the Flames can lament wasted opportunities -- two losses to both the Ottawa Senators and the Columbus Blue Jackets, falling to the New York Islanders -- but that's only one reason they need to do some quick navel gazing before returning home Saturday night to face the divisional-rival Minnesota Wild after getting their butts kicked 9-0 Thursday by the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

A bigger one is what Butler is talking about, ill-timed mistakes.

"Look at (their 3-1 loss in Washington). We play well but don't get the points," coach Brent Sutter said. "Their powerplay is good, but we made two mistakes that we don't do when we kill penalties.

"Then, look at the third goal. It's a simple play of banking the puck off the boards and keeping the play going further ahead, but instead we put it in the middle of the ice with our backs to the middle, and then go for a line change, so we're caught on a four-on-two in our zone. Those mistakes have happened this whole trip."

The Flames actually started their road swing with a pair of wins, counting the pre-Christmas clash in Vancouver. However, they've dropped five straight -- one in overtime.

And with 24 of the final 40 games at the Saddledome, they still could make a run for a playoff spot.

But the players know the first half of the season didn't come close to expectations for a variety of reasons, including a wave of injuries, an inconsistent offensive attack and defensive struggles.

"There's definitely room for improvement, but I think, overall, we're starting to create a way we want to play," Flames captain Jarome Iginla. "You talk about it, and it's easy to say, but you've got to feel it as a team. You've got to go out and do it

"We've been better the last month and a half. It's been a tough road trip, and we didn't have it every game, but ... we've been finding our game."

They have three months to prove whether that winning formula is in their grasp.

With 40 games remaining in the 2011-12 season, here is a look at what's transpired and what to watch for between now and the finale.

KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

For the first time in years, the Flames have a youth movement going, with Roman Horak making the team from the start of the season, and T.J. Brodie, Paul Byron, Leland Irving and Greg Nemisz all seeing time as rookies, too.

Plus, the club added an unheralded blueliner in Derek Smith, who had just 11 NHL games under his belt prior to this season.

Throw in the young "vets" on the team in the likes of Chris Butler and Mikael Backlund, and this is a team doing a rebuild on the fly.

There have been ups and downs. Horak started out exceeding expectations, but his play has been spotty at best in the last couple of months.

Brodie went though a tough stretch in mid-December, but he has regained his jump the past few games and has been very strong.

Irving was very good through his first three starts in net, but had a tough go in Boston.

Of them all, the biggest disappointment has been Backlund, who was expected to take a top-six role a try before the season started, but hasn't been up to snuff after missing the first six weeks due to a broken finger.

None of the other players were slam-dunk prospects, so the expectations weren't too high from the start.

The early returns look pretty good.

SKED DREAD?

After playing in Boston Thursday, the hardest part of the Flames schedule is over. Or is it?

Of their final 40 games, 24 are at home, so that could bode well, since this team is 7-0-1 in its last eight outings at the Saddledome.

However, the Flames are yet to play any of the five Pacific Division squads, and you know the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings are gearing up.

Plus, Calgary has a March slate with 17 games.

They're not out of the woods.

MOST VALUABLE

The easy choice here is goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, but to add the element of exceeding expectations, we'll turn to Olli Jokinen, with Curtis Glencross being runner-up by a nose.

Jokinen has become a more complete player while also providing the offensive element hoped for when the club acquired him the first time.

There are still flaws -- that 44% mark on faceoffs -- but he's become a vital part of the team, and started to click with Jarome Iginla and Glencross.

Speaking of Glencross, the winger in the first-year of a four-year contract paying US$2.55 million per season is the team leader with 16 goals and on pace to shatter his best marks in goals and points.

Frankly, the Flames would be even further out of a playoff spot without his contributions.

LEAST VALUABLE

It's been a tough season for Rene Bourque, and it's getting worse before it becomes better.

The winger has 30-goal potential written all over him, but has four more games to watch from the sidelines due to his second suspension within a month.

Although Bourque has 13 goals, his three assists and seemingly listless play, not to mention bad, ill-timed penalties of late, are not what this team needs from him.

A few years ago, he was seen as the player who may take the torch from Jarome Iginla. Right now, the Flames have to be wondering whether he'll reach his own potential.

Runner-up: Mikael Backlund. This was to be the chance for a breakout season for the 2007 first-round pick, but the year started on a sour note due to a broken finger which required surgery. Since returning in mid-November, though, Backlund has rarely been a factor and played a timid game in both ends of the rink. Three goals and five points in 27 games is nowhere close to expectations.

THE IGGY WATCH

Jarome Iginla, the 34-year-old face of the franchise and captain headed into the season needing 16 goals to become the 42nd player in NHL history to score 500 times. He needs one more, and it's taken longer than expected.

Iginla struggled through the first couple of months, but has cranked up his game with eight goals and 20 points in the last 18 outings.

Historically, Iginla has become better and better as the season has progressed, so his run of 30-goal seasons should continue.

The Flames need the supporting cast to help him in the second half, but Iginla will need to carry a bigger load the rest of the way to make the playoff dream a reality.

INJURIES PILE UP

The big story around the league is the number of injuries, and the Flames are in the middle of all that, with 168 man-games lost and counting.

Currently, this is a team missing two of its top four defencemen in Mark Giordano and Derek Smith (who'd have guessed Smith would be so valuable?), plus Scott Hannan was hurt in the Boston outing, along with sublime passer Alex Tanguay, Matt Stajan, David Moss and Henrik Karlsson. Plus, Brett Carson is currently on his second conditioning stint of the season.

When Raitis Ivanan suited up, it meant the Flames have had 32 players in uniform this season.

There are other teams in similar situations, and all are finding they don't have the depth to withstand it.

To make matters worse, there's no timeline when any of six injured players will return to action.

UNRESTRICTED FREE-AGENT RADAR

Player 2011-12 Salary Stat of note

D Cory Sarich $3.3 million Scratched 16 of 42 games

C Olli Jokinen $3 million Tied for team lead with 32 points

RW Lee Stempniak $2.3 million Eight goals after 19 last season

RW David Moss $1.3 million Played just 99 games over last two seasons

LW Tom Kostopoulos $1.1 million Three straight eight-goal seasons

D Scott Hannan $1 million Minus-9 in the last eight games

C Brendan Morrison $850,000 One goal in 15 games. Four this season

D Derek Smith $700,000 10 points second among defencemen

LW Raitis Ivanans $600,000 Two NHL games over last two seasons

RW Tim Jackman $550,000 93 hits to go with 51 penalty minutes

LW Pierre-Luc Leblond $550,000 10 PIMs in three NHL games

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca


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