Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Post-game Party: Progress

Progress isn't always pretty, but it's invariably encouraging.

Last night, Rene Bourque and Miikka Kiprusoff threw an unwilling and broken Flames squad on their backs and led the charge in a 4-1 victory over the Oilers, the Flames' first in three games and only their fourth in the month of December.

Despite the end result--two points and ever-important provincial bragging rights--the dark cloud surrounding this team has not entirely dissipated. The Flames were outshot 16-5 in the first period and were fortunate to escape the opening frame in a 1-1 deadlock. The final shot totals favoured the Oilers 35-24 in a game where they blocked eighteen Flames shots. The Flames also totaled fifteen missed shots at even strength--a disturbing trend that shows no signs of stopping. Besides getting outshot by a team with only a marginally better Shots For/Game average (28.3 for the Oilers compared to 27.0 for the Flames), the Flames also lost the faceoff battle to the Oilers, winning 42% of the draws compared the 58% for Edmonton. I know I said that the faceoff debate seemed like a moot point a little while back, but since this awful streak of bad hockey began, faceoff percentage just jumps out as another glaring weakness of this team. Again, they got beat by a team with only a marginally better faceoff winning percentage--46.6% for EDM vs. 46.2% for CGY. Essentially what I'm saying is that the Flames were lucky to come away with a win against the second-worst team in the league, despite the lop-sided score.

All that aside, this game showcased excellent bounce-back performances from three players who struggled mightily Saturday night against Vancouver--Bourque, who was -2 against the Canucks, Jokinen, who was benched for all but two shifts in the third period, and Kiprusoff who allowed four goals on thirteen shots in the first period. The newly configured line of Bourque-Jokinen-Dawes combined for six points against the Oilers and was a combined +5. While the new top trio of Glencross-Langkow-Iginla didn't exactly shine, Iginla was still involved in the game physically, dropping the mitts with the Oilers' Ladislav Smid in the third period. Also, kudos to Dustin Boyd, who registered his first career NHL fight when he tangled with Andrew Cogliano early in the first.

We needn't be reminded to take this victory in stride; a much tougher contest awaits this team tomorrow night at home against Ryan Smyth and the L.A. Kings (7:30PM, Sportsnet). Given how hard they made the game against the Oilers for themselves, it'll be a huge challenge that I'm not feeling all that optimistic about, especially given the fact that the Flames have lost three straight at the 'Dome. I'm leaving California today, so the Kings and I have separated for the time being, citing irreconcilable differences. Really, I was just trying to make the Flames jealous; it didn't mean anything, promise ;)

After missing three Flames games and catching only snippets of Canada's three World Juniors' games, I'm not a very happy hockey fan. Upon my return to the Great White North, I will do my best never to miss a game again. Ever.

I did manage to catch two periods of Canada's 8-2 win over Slovakia on the flight home (thank goodness for Westjet and their mini TVs); Canada was impressive once again, showcasing their pure offensive skill and breaking a previous shut-out record in the process. However, the game was not as much of a blowout as the score indicates; the shots ended up 35-27 in favour of Canada, and if Canada hadn't scored three goals on their first four shots of the game, it may have been a different story.

Slovakia has an above-average team that isn't afraid to play physical, and they made life miserable for Canada's defenders and penalty kill on a few occasions. Greg Nemisz was held pointless yet again, despite playing with Windsor teammates Ryan Ellis, Adam Henrique (albeit injured), and Taylor Hall, who had a hat-trick in this game, which can't be doing much for the nineteen-year-old's confidence. Hopefully he finds a way to put some points on the board sooner rather than later, being that this is such a short tournament.

Oh, and there's also the small matter of the Canadian Men's Olympic team being announced tomorrow morning at precisely ten o'clock, with TSN's preview show airing at nine-thirty. Stay tuned for the inevitable debate on which media type's projected roster was more correct and the glorified self back-patting that will surely ensue. Everyone and their dog likely has a pretty good idea of what the finished product will look like, and I'll be shocked if there are any major omissions or surprise add-ons akin to the Crosby-Bertuzzi debacle of Gretzky's doing in 2006.

L.A. tomorrow and Edmonton the day after that. Let's see if the Flames can close out 2009 in style.

Go Flames Go.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Second rule of pessimism: Things can only get worse

Need I say more?

The Flames lost again. As if the Holiday season wasn't depressing enough already.

Kiprusoff's Toskala-esque gaffe was only part of the problem tonight as the Flames were the victims of a 5-1 spanking at home against the Canucks, a team that they are supposedly "competing" with for top spot in the Northwest division. Despite taking the lead seven minutes into the first period on a nifty tip-in by Jarome Iginla, the Flames failed to incur any further damage, surrendering four unanswered goals in the first period before Kiprusoff was mercifully yanked and Curtis McElhinney was summoned from the bench to stop the bleeding. McElhinney stopped fourteen of the fifteen shots he faced in two periods of play. The Flames' failure to get off to a good start at home and stay out of the penalty box cost them in a game where second place in the division was on the line, against a team playing its second game in as many nights.

Once again, the Flames succumbed to pitiful offensive production and abysmal play in their own zone, and have squandered a healthy nine-point division lead to Mason Raymond and those shifty bastards from the West Coast. Maybe they were all just as incensed as Mikael Samuelsson upon hearing the news that he didn't make the Swedish Olympic team; I can't think of much else that would have brought on such an inspired performance, with the exception of the opportunity to overtake a divisional rival in the standings. Perhaps it all has something to do with this (or nothing at all, I was just looking for an excuse to work this video into my post and avoid going into further detail about a game I didn't watch):
That's Dion Phaneuf drunkenly rocking out to Billy Joel's "Piano Man" at a piano bar, apparently in Vegas, courtesy of TMZ. The guy in the white shirt is totally digging it, and the "Merry fucking Christmas" at the end really adds a nice touch. Stay classy, Dion.

I'm not about to get all ethical and over-analytical on you and claim that a twenty-four-year-old hockey player utilizing his notoriety and having a good time in Vegas is detrimental to the team and at the root of their recent struggles, but it can't be beneficial; especially since this team appears to have the character and mental fortitude of a cardboard box right now.

The Flames stumble into Edmonton tomorrow with about as much dignity as that annihilated-drunk girl at the party who just lost her virginity on the living room couch and then proceeded to vomit profusely. I'm all about the analogies this week.

Pride and a much-needed two points are on the line tomorrow night; the Oilers have lost six straight games while the Flames have lost six of their last seven. It's not as if Flames fans have had to endure an agonizing fall from grace or a seemingly endless parade to IR, but it's enough to get us feeling sorry for ourselves. We're in quite the tough spot here; we don't have a good enough team to expect consistent dominance and too much talent to accept constant losing. It's hard to imagine that things could get much worse for a team that was once again expected to make some noise in the West this season, but as far as the pessimist in me is concerned, they very well could. Every pessimist is really an optimist at heart who tries to suppress her expectations for fear of disappointment. Even though I knew the Flames were down 4-1 when I left the hotel, part of me hoped I would return to news of a 5-4 overtime victory for the good guys.

Second rule of pessimism: Things can only get worse.

I threatened to become an L.A. Kings fan tonight. It might just happen if I stay in California any longer.

Game time is 7PM on Sportsnet West. Get drunk and cry for me.

I've essentially given up on all superstitions at this point, so what the hell:

Go Flames Go.

PS: Misery loves company, so check out my Q&A with Oilers blogger Jay from Low on Oil here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry freakin' Christmas

Okay, this whole losing business is getting a little out of hand.

Being that I am on vacation in California, I missed the Flames' last game before the Christmas break, a 2-1 shootout loss to the Blues on home ice. Needless to say, the game story spoke for itself. Eleven shots on goal through the first two periods, twenty-four altogether, a relatively easy night for Chris Mason, who stopped all but one--a screened semi-slapper from Gio off a faceoff win by Langkow. Six players had zero shots on goal. The Blues blocked a zillion shots and the Flames failed to establish much of a presence in the offensive zone, while a defensive miscue left Patrick Berglund uncovered in the slot, where he would score to give St. Louis the lead in the second period. This seems to have become the M.O. for the Flames in recent losses.

No one is surprised that the Calgary Flames are struggling to score goals. That was to be expected; you can't just replace a first-line, thirty-nine-goal-scoring winger with a bunch of ten-and-fifteen-goal scorers and expect the same results. What is surprising about this team is that they seem to lack the will to make anything happen offensively. I'm not talking about a few select players here, the whole damn team is stuck in this simultaneous goal-scoring rut, and it's real ugly. Everyone seems to have the confidence of a slightly overweight fifteen-year-old with braces and a bad haircut.

It's not that they aren't getting the shots--that I can live with if you bury your chances when you get them--but to miss the net ten times during a game seems ludicrous to me. Have the Sutters assembled a team of visually impaired, self-conscious teenagers with wonky sticks? Even the Sportsnet crew is picking up on the fact that the Flames shoot wide of the net a lot, and that's saying something. I know that teams sometimes shoot wide on purpose, in hopes of banking a shot off the end boards and cashing in on the juicy rebound in front of the net, but that is a set play that only works in certain rinks and if/when the bounces are going your way. I find it hard to believe that the Flames are purposefully miss-firing on this many potential shots. Shoot at the net, boys; it's that piece of mesh anchored by three red iron posts, you'll know it when you see it.

Missing the net is one thing, but the amount of scoring chances that the Flames "go-to" guys are missing on is unbelievable. 2-on-1 chances, breakaways, semi-breakaways, open nets...the list goes on. You're not going to get those chances every game, and when you do, you have to put them away. You can have the best defence in the league, but the team that scores the most goals always wins. The Flames seem to be learning that the hard way.

So how does one remedy the situation? Apparently, Brent Sutter thinks that putting Conroy, who has yet to score this season, on the first line (at right wing, no less, displacing Jarome Iginla from his natural position) will cure his team's offensive ills. Lord help us. Let's face it, Dawes and Moss are third line wingers on a contending team, not second liners to be counted upon to score goals every game. The Sutters seem to be in the business of collectively denying the organization's lack of offensive depth. It seems quite obvious that a trade for a top line winger would benefit this team, but Darryl is so stubborn that he refuses to acknowledge that the team he has put together is not good enough. That, or he has the patience of a saint. I'm not very hopeful that a deal will get done before the trade deadline, if at all.

This team is going to be in a lot of trouble if they can't get the top line going consistently or at least figure out how to "score by committee." Like many of the Flames' detractors have so eagerly pointed out, their skill and offensive prowess pales in comparison to that of true contenders like Pittsburgh, Washington, San Jose, and Chicago. However, teams like New Jersey operate on relatively limited offensive firepower and still manage to hold down eight spot in the league in terms of goals for and compete for first overall in the East. For more on the Flames' scoring struggles, check out this awesome piece by Kent over at M&G, he articulates the issue far better than I ever could.

Vancouver tomorrow.

The Flames begin a stretch of four games in five nights to close out 2009 tomorrow night at home. The Canucks have been relatively hot lately, and I think we can all agree that the Flames' two wins against them this season have been the result of worse-than-average performances by Luongo and a few lucky bounces. A 4-1 win against the Oilers tonight has brought them to within one point of the Flames, while the Avs and Wild also insist on winning on a regular basis. Again, I don't know what to expect from this team tomorrow. Are they going to come out inspired and ready to take on a divisional opponent, or slow and unprepared, failing to match Vancouver's tempo in the second half of back-to-back games for the 'Nucks? The pessimist in me suspects the latter, given the way this team responded against the Blues on Wednesday.

Game time is 6 PM on Sportsnet West. Ride the stress train for me.

A three-game losing streak would be the worst late Christmas present ever.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

And it's back...

Well that was a nice little one-game respite from losing, wasn't it?

It appears that the sloppy defence displayed by the Flames in the third period of their win against the Kings on Thursday night carried over into this afternoon's contest with the Predators. After all the hullabaloo about how they had to be prepared for the early start time, how they had to adjust their game day routines, the Flames came out predictably flat and surrendered the first goal of the game just four and a half minutes in, when Martin Erat managed to get a weak wrist shot past Kiprusoff despite having three Flames skaters converge on him.

The Preds weren't done there, as David Legwand out-battled Jay Bouwmeester in front of the Flames net to put Nashville up 2-0 eight minutes later just as a questionable roughing penalty assessed to David Moss had expired. The Flames would get one back just over a minute later on the powerplay, as Phaneuf fired home his second PPG in as many games to close out the period with his team down by one and momentum on their side.

The Flames utilized that momentum nicely in the second period, as Jarome Iginla snapped an eight-game scoring drought with one of his patented snapshots from the wing, which went off the inside of the post and in. When Iggy scores, he scores in bunches, and he was at it again around the midway mark of the period. Alone in front of the Predator's net, Iginla scooped up his own rebound and poked it past an outstretched Ellis from one knee to give the Flames their first lead of the game. It was a dandy individual effort, but I couldn't find a video of it, so here's one of Brian McGrattan taking on Wade Belak instead:
McGrattan FTW.

The Flames continued to pour on the pressure, outshooting Nashville 15-6 in the middle frame, and had many glorious opportunities to take a two-goal lead. In typical karmic fashion, those missed chances would come back to haunt them and the Predators squared the affair at three with just under three minutes remaining in the second.

The third period would begin much the same as the first; four minutes into the final frame, the Predators set up in Flames zone and started cycling the puck around the boards, somehow eluding every Flame on the ice. The frozen disc eventually made its way back to Cody Franson at the point, who fired it netward where it glanced off of Daymond Langkow, past Kiprusoff, and into the net. Queue the comeback routine. The Flames fire everything in their arsenal towards the Predators' net but can't manage to beat Ellis, who stopped all ten shots in the third period and got lucky on misses by Rene Bourque and Olli Jokinen, who likely couldn't hit a barn door right now. The Flames never really came close to tying the game with Kiprusoff pulled in the final minute, and Dave Scatchard iced the game for the Preds with an empty-netter at 19:34.

This game irritated me on many levels. The Flames simply cannot afford to start games the way they did today, especially at home. The Predators established an instant presence in the Flames' zone, drew a penalty off a turnover, and scored their first goal largely due to a lazy play by Dion Phaneuf behind the Flames net. The first period was once a strong point for this team, and we've seen that trend reverse since the beginning of the month. The Flames can't seem to stay out of the box in the opening frame, and have trouble establishing themselves in the offensive zone. A bad first period only puts a team behind the eight-ball for the remaining fourty-minutes of the game, and the Flames were fortunate enough to overcome a less-than-impressive opening frame this afternoon.

Turnovers killed this team today, simply put. At one point, the Flames had committed sixteen giveaways compared to the Predators' eight. It's nearly impossible to win a game with that many turnovers, especially when your goaltender isn't performing at his usual levels of excellence, as we saw today with Kiprusoff. He deserves some of the blame for allowing four goals on twenty shots, but giveaways by the forwards and lazy play by the Flames' defencemen kick-started the process. The lack of compete level from this team's high-priced blueliners in this game was appalling. They lost puck battles along the boards in the defensive zone, failed to track down opposing forwards, and intercepting passes or blocking shots was seemingly out of the question. Jay Bouwmeester was on the wrong side of an even +/- for the third time in four games; Mark Giordano was a -2 after one of the best games of his career on Thursday. Daymond Langkow and Nigel Dawes both finished the afternoon -3, while Rene Bourque was a team-worst -4.

The physical element that was instrumental in the Flames' victory over the Kings was almost entirely absent from this game. They fell victim to Nashville's speedy, back-and-forth style of play and weren't able to even the score when it mattered. Nothing new really. Good teams find a way to win in adverse situations; clearly the Flames can't count themselves amongst those teams until they are able to do just that.

Outshooting a team for the first time in four games is nice. Iginla busting out of his scoring slump with two goals and an assist is also a plus. Winning the faceoff battle for once is good; but this league is based on results, and it's hard to recognize the positives in a game where this team let a victory slip away and didn't get the results they needed: the two points. I don't think I need to stress the importance of winning in the Western Conference any further. With this loss, the Flames fall to second in the division and sixth in the conference as Colorado takes over top spot with a 5-2 win over Columbus. A record of 3-5-1 in the month of December has cost the Flames a shot at first place in the West and leaves them only three points ahead of the eighth-place Red Wings as the half-way point of the season draws closer. If it wasn't for a 10-2-2 November, this team would likely find itself out of a playoff spot.

The Flames are now off until Wednesday, when they'll play the Blues in their final game before the Christmas break. I don't know how this team is going to utilize its practice time or how they will respond in a game after three days' rest, but my expectation levels have been significantly reduced for the time being. A record of 9-6-1 at home is nothing to be proud of, and upcoming games against the Canucks, Oilers, and Kings at the 'Dome will be crucial in determining where the Flames stand fourty-one games in.

Right now, it's not looking good.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Post-game Party: The rocky road to redemption

Well we kicked the skid, although not with as much authority as I would have liked.

The Flames came storming out of the gate against the Kings at the 'Dome tonight, eager to set the tempo for what was a hard-fought, physical contest. Mark Giordano and Aaron Johnson were especially punishing on the blueline, as Giordano drew the ire of the Kings after dealing a series of solid jolts to their captain Dustin Brown, who was held to only one shot on goal and was visibly upset on the Kings bench. Brown attempted retaliation later in the game on a few hits that Gio managed to dodge, including an attempted elbow to the head that surely would have been reviewed by the league had it connected.

After a solid first period in which the Flames managed to kill off two straight Kings powerplays, they registered a powerplay goal of their own when Dion Phaneuf blasted a slapper through traffic with only 0.7 seconds left in the opening frame. The second period was essentially dead even, with each team firing eleven shots at the opposing 'tender. The third period is where things started to go downhill. After Nigel Dawes scored to put the Flames up 2-0 early in the final frame, the Kings took over. At one point, scoring chances were 9-3 in favour of L.A., and things started to get really sloppy at around the five minute mark.

After a couple good shifts in the offensive zone by the Kings during which the Flames failed to exit their zone after multiple opportunities, Robyn Regehr was dinged with an interference penalty. After a successful kill, the Flames iced the puck as Regehr stepped out of the box. A faceoff in the defensive zone led to more pressure from the Kings, and Corey Elkins shoveled home his first NHL tally to cut the Flames' lead in half. Thankfully, the Hockey Gods smiled down upon the Flames just minutes later, and presented them with a gift of a powerplay opportunity after an interference call on Justin Williams in front of the Flames net. Having already met their maximum powerplay goal-per-game quota of one, the Flames failed to generate any shots on the man advantage, and the Kings were back on the attack shortly thereafter.

During a rare shift in the Kings' zone, Williams struck again, this time clipping Public Enemy #1 Mark Giordano with a high stick with just over ninety-seconds remaining in the game. What followed resembled nothing remotely close to a powerplay, as the Kings set up shop once again in the Flames zone. With a minute remaining in the contest, Jay Bouwmeester, who has been average at best in recent games, took an idiotic cross-checking penalty after failing to clear the puck, resulting in one of the most stressful final minutes of a game in recent memory. After winning a faceoff to the right of Kiprusoff with 1.2 seconds left in the game, the Kings directed a final shot netward for a grand total of sixteen in the third period and thirty-five overall before the Flames managed to escape with the much-needed two-points.

This victory offers little comfort to Flames fans, as another incomplete and inconsistent game almost saw them squander a two-goal lead and fourty-five minutes worth of good hockey. Again, if it wasn't for Miikka Kiprusoff's MVP-like performance in goal, this game would likely have ended much differently. The inability of this team to exit and clear the zone cleanly remains a major area of concern and frustration, and to me, separates them from the elite teams in the league.

Watching a team like Pittsburgh, Chicago, or New Jersey play, it is enviable how quickly and smoothly their players exit the defensive zone, aided by crisp passes from defencemen to forwards. There is no getting hemmed in by the opposition, no scrambling around, no failing to get to loose pucks or getting outworked along the boards. These shortcomings have been painfully obvious lately, and what seemed to be one of their strong points in November is now an area in need of much improvement.

Adam Pardy's recovery from a sprained wrist helps to bolster the backend, I thought he had a pretty good game tonight, but the Flames as a group need to recommit to team defence. Allowing over thirty shots on goal every game, regardless of the ability of your goaltender, is irresponsible. If the Flames' team defence improves, the offence will surely follow. Taking a 2-0 lead early in the third might seem like justification to "take your foot of the gas," but not to the extent that you are getting outshot 16-3. Jarome Iginla and Nigel Dawes led the Flames with three shots a piece; the Kings? Doughty and Kopitar both had six while Justin Williams registered seven shots on goal, despite spending four minutes in the penalty box.

This is the second straight game where the effort of this club has fallen flat in the third period, only this time, they were up by two goals instead of tied. It reminds me of the beginning of the season, when the Flames were eking out wins based on the merits of twenty or fourty minute efforts. While the sense of "urgency" and tenacity that has been relatively absent over the duration of their now defunct three-game slide made an appearance tonight, the Flames still need to show a consistent commitment to the style of play that they know makes them successful and a tough team to play against.

In other news...

Thanks to kind-hearted Oilers blogger Jay from Low On Oil who has been spreading the word about my humble little blog, I have received an invitation to join the Bloguin Network as a Flames blogger (duh)! Needless to say I am honoured and extremely excited to join such a diverse and knowledgeable community of sports bloggers. It will likely take a month or more for the new site to be established, and in the meantime I am considering changing the name of this blog to something more Flames-related. So far, Jay has suggested "Fan the Flames," which I modified to "Fanning the Flames." I welcome your suggestions in the comments section, or feel free to send me an email at hazel.mutch@hotmail.com

Up Next: The Flames host the streaking Nashville Predators in a matinee game on Saturday. The Preds have won three straight and are a respectable 9-5-2 on the road; this game will be a tough test for a Flames team that hopes to get back on track before Christmas and has struggled to find consistency at home. By the way, what is the deal with Jamie Lundmark? Does anybody have the vaguest idea as to why the Flames have recalled him when there are no injuries plaguing the forward ranks that I'm aware of? It doesn't even appear on the team's website. He is just lurking about town with no intended purpose. Very odd indeed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Losing's a bitch

I've been somewhat of a bad fan again lately.

I didn't order the Flames vs. Blues game on Flames PPV tonight because I didn't want to waste my (well, my parents') money on another losing effort, and I just couldn't shake that sinking feeling that the Flames would come away empty-handed on Brett Hull night in the Show Me State. Well, it turned out I was right. Brent Sutter didn't seem to give off the same level of poorly-disguised rage tonight as he did after the loss to Colorado on Sunday, but he can't be happy with another incomplete effort from his club in a game they could have won.

I watched the debacle against Minnesota unfold in its entirety and expected a better effort against the Avs; I was disappointed and frustrated when that didn't materialize and anticipated a stronger showing in St. Louis. After this game, I simply have no explantation for the funk the Flames find themselves in. Chalk it up to an inability to play a full sixty? Not sticking to your game plan? Lack of confidence? Maybe, but after such a successful month in which it appeared Brent Sutter had finally got this team playing the way he envisioned when he took the job in the offseason, the fact that this team has gotten away from that style of play for so long is disconcerting. The fact that they don't seem to be in any hurry to get back to it is even more so.

Clearly this team is aware of what they're doing wrong--allowing too many shots, not getting enough, undisciplined play--and they know what they have to do in order to win and be successful. Going into the third period of a tied game in which you still have a very good chance to win, being held to only four shots on goal and getting outplayed the way the Flames did tonight against St. Louis is unacceptable. Forcing your backup goaltender to make thirty saves while offering little defensive support is negligible. Every team goes through tough stretches, they say it builds character, but three games worth of consistently bad hockey does little to enforce that saying. This losing streak is not the result of bad luck, but the inability to compete at the same level as the opposition, to rise to the challenge, to maintain consistent levels of effort, emotion, and involvement, and that is what is so endlessly frustrating about it. Is this all just "coach speak?" Very possibly, but I can't think of any other way to describe what I'm currently witnessing.

It goes without saying that the leaders on this team need to step it up in this situation--Jarome Iginla hasn't scored in seven games, Jokinen in three, Robyn Regehr was a -2 tonight, and Jay Bouwmeester is a combined -4 in his past three outings. Perhaps it is unfair to call Bouwmeester a leader in his first season with the Flames, but on such a young defence he arguably gains the title automatically. While the Flames have been getting contributions from the likes of Bourque (1G, 1A), Giordano (+2, 1A), Boyd, and Langkow, this team has proved that they are at their best when everyone is doing their part, and, needless to say, that hasn't been happening lately. Sean O'Donnell of the L.A. Kings said it best tonight after he scored the game winner against the Oilers; he explained that the Kings have been successful because even when they don't play their best hockey, they still find a way to win. The Flames seemed to have that aspect of their game down pat early in the season and in November, and they need to get back to it.

The Western Conference is shaping up to be even tighter than I anticipated, and every point only increases in significance as the season wears on. The Flames have fallen from second to sixth while going 2-4-1 in their past seven, meanwhile the Coyotes and the injury-riddled Wings have crept up to within two and three points respectively and Edmonton, Vancouver, and Minnesota are all inching ever closer to the Flames' second-place division perch. The Predators are tied with the Blackhawks. Are you sweating yet? You should be. Welcome aboard the Stress Train, folks, next stop: Pengrowth Saddledome. Enjoy the ride.

A date with the best-in-the-west Kings does not seem like the best remedy for the Flames' ills; sometimes good teams bring out the best in them, others, the worst. I honestly don't know what to expect from this team on Thursday. The Flames have the advantage of a rested Kiprusoff and a powerplay unit that appears to be on the up-swing, and after three straight road losses, they may be looking forward to a return to home ice, despite their most recent showing at the 'Dome.

L.A. on Thursday. Let's show this punk-ass losing streak who's boss.

Go Flames Go.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sutter hints at character deficiencies in another loss to the Avs

If there was a shouting match after the game the last time the Flames played the Avs, the walls of the visitor's dressing room at the Pepsi Centre must have been shaking violently following this one. At least
Adrian Dater thinks it's funny.

Another half-hearted effort by most involved (with the exception of #34 and #17) culminated in another frustrating loss to a division opponent tonight, when the Flames had yet another opportunity to take over sole possession of first place in the Northwest.

I turned the game off after the first period when I realized that it was likely going to be an exact replica of their 2-1 overtime loss to the Wild on Friday night, so there's not much I can say about it. After two games at home against the Avs in which the Flames probably deserved better fates, they got exactly what they deserved tonight in Denver. Once again, defensive breakdowns and offensive ineptitude sunk this team. On the last two Colorado goals, Stewart and Tucker were allowed to stand uncontested at the side of the Flames net, getting two or three clear chances before scoring.

The Flames defenders seem to think that it's illegal to tie up an opposing forward in front of the net, block a shot, or do anything that might possibly help out their poor goaltender, who is only playing the best hockey of his career and allowed more than two goals in a game for the first time in nearly a month. Jay Bouwmeester was -2 and all other d-men except Regehr (-1) were even, which essentially speaks to how bad the defensive situation was.

This game actually started off well, and the Flames had a few good scoring chances on which they failed to capitalize before the parade to the penalty box began. Undisciplined play resulted in five straight trips to the sin bin, including a double minor awarded to Curtis Glencross for high-sticking, and managed to kill off all but one two-man advantage, on which Wojtek Wolski scored. The penalty killing, now second in the league on the road, remains a high point for the Flames, but it hasn't exactly been successful in limiting its opponents shots on goal lately, as the Flames surrendered twenty to the Avalanche in the first period alone, most of which they spent short-handed.

After the first period, the Flames and Avs registered an even fifteen shots a piece, but Colorado made the most of their opportunities. Mark Giordano scored on a powerplay (!) with six minutes left to make the score 3-2, and the Flames were left to scramble for the tying goal. In the dying seconds of the game, Jarome Iginla, who is once again feeling the heat after a six-game scoring drought, broke his stick in an attempt to fire home what appeared to be a perfect pass from Bouwmeester.

Bad luck? Perhaps, but this game was over long before the final five minutes of the third period, and the Flames now find themselves in an 0-3 hole against a team they are competing with for the division lead. This team has to make their own luck by playing their style of game, which seems to have run off the rails recently. They started to get back to it in the third, but as we all know, twenty minutes of hockey just doesn't cut it most nights.

After the game, Sutter said he felt that the Flames' play from their last game against Minnesota carried over into tonight's contest; when asked why he thought that was, he replied "I don't want to get into it." Sutter seemed to be at somewhat of a loss for words during the post-game media scrum, clearly disappointed in the effort level of his club in what he believed was a very important game. Cryptic character critiques from the Bench Boss are nothing new; we heard it after the last loss to Colorado, and after that blowout loss to the Hawks on home ice. It remains to be seen if this one will have the desired effect.

The Flames stumble into St. Louis for Brett Hull Night on Tuesday sporting a less than impressive 2-3-1 record in the month of December. The Blues have lost four straight games at home, so naturally something's gotta give. The good news is that the Flames still have three games in hand on the Avs and sit only two points behind them in the standings; let's hope they make the most of it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Post-game Party: Flames 3, Thrashers 1 (plus a lengthy unrelated rant; proceed at your own risk)

First order of business: Doesn't Nigel Dawes sort of look like he could be Iggy's kid brother? So cute.

Now, onto the important stuff. Last night's affair yielded predictable if not expected results in a game that saw the return of Robyn Regehr after a one-game hiatus and the Flames' much anticipated homecoming. The Flames were a little sluggish to start the first period and found themselves on the wrong side of early 7-1 and 10-3 shot counts, but found their stride late in the period and carried that momentum into the middle frame. In the second, they outshot the visiting Thrashers 14-6 and outscored them 2-0 on goals from Dawes and Jokinen, while enjoying three straight opportunities with the man advantage. Colby Armstrong made things interesting when a shot deflected in off of his skate while he was battling with Aaron Johnson in front of the Flames net to make the score 2-1 and set up a nail-biting finish, but I think we can all agree that this was the highlight of the night:

Curtis Glencross is one badass motherf--er.

The Flames went on to win 3-1 courtesy of an empty-netter from Bourque, who stripped Kovalchuk of the puck at the Flames blueline and potted his ninth of the season into an empty cage after Kiprusoff made several key saves on Max Afinogenov from close range with the Thrashers pressing for the equalizer. While the Flames managed to translate their road successes into a home victory with the help of some spotless penalty-killing and contributions from the first line, the ineffectual powerplay, operating at a 7/74 clip over their past twenty games, is still a glaring blemish on what is otherwise a relatively well-rounded team.

The powerplay generated little offence on five opportunities, with the most dangerous chance being a glorious open net gimme on which Rene Bourque shot the puck high and wide. Give the Thrashers credit, their PK unit is ranked #1 in the league on the road, but as I've said before, the Flames have to find a way to score goals and not allow teams to get back into games that should have been well out of reach. This year's team is beginning to remind me of the 05-06 squad, one that possessed unmatched defensive prowess but lacked offensive firepower, and that worries me a little bit.

Now onto my rant of the day; stop me if you think this is unjustified:

I rarely take issue with the good folks over at Puck Daddy, but this post dissecting the intended messages of a CTV feature documenting the respective careers of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin irked me.

As a communications major, I'm all for interpreting media messages and the notion that social reality is constructed through language, but this is pushing it. In the article, Greg Wyshynski writes that the aforementioned CTV feature is a "glorious piece of Canadian hockey propaganda" and that CTV has shaped two distinct images for Crosby and Ovechkin. Crosby is the well-behaved, quiet leader; the game is his life, and anything that goes on outside of it is none of our business. Ovechkin is the flashy, loud-mouthed foreigner with disregard for the rules; his life outside of hockey is well documented and ever expanding. I won't argue against the fact that these images have been established, but media-constructed personas projected onto athletes, more specifically hockey players, are hardly a new phenomena.

Weren't the same characteristics used to describe Crosby attributed to Grezky as a player? What about Lemieux? Yzerman? Russian players have often been portrayed as soft-spoken individuals who quietly go about their business and avoid any extra attention; Ovechkin doesn't fit that stereotype, but that's not to say he should be vilified for it. His individuality is and should be recognized and celebrated by hockey fans and media worldwide.

This is the first issue I have with this piece; CTV is not alone in shaping these images, they are simply perpetuating pre-existing personas for these two players that have been constructed by various media outlets in Canada and the United States. While Wyshynski wonders whether or not CTV producers are aware of the images they are portraying, it seems obvious that the sole purpose of the feature is a blatant attempt to generate hype for the Olympics and reignite the long-standing hockey rivalry between Canada and Russia (not that it needs it), and not to detract from the accomplishments of Alexander Ovechkin while glorifying those of Sidney Crosby. Propaganda? Perhaps, but what's wrong with drumming up a little nationalist fervor in anticipation of the Olympics, especially with the games on home soil? At the very least, I would expect an American to understand that.

Wyshynski claims that CTV portrays Ovechkin as "being the star of the Russian team" at the Olympic camp, while Crosby was simply "trying out for the team." Not to discount the talent of Russian players, but Ovechkin is clearly the most explosive, talented, and marketable of the bunch. He scored fifty-six goals and one-hundred and ten points last season, second only to Evgeni Malkin, with Datsyuk and Kovalchuk brining up the not-so-distant rear; of course he's the star.

Crosby led all Canadians in scoring with one-hundred and three points, but again, players like Ryan Getlzaf, Jarome Iginla, and Marc Savard weren't too far behind. Jeff Carter and Mike Cammalleri had breakout seasons with fourty-six and thirty-nine goals respectively, while Rick Nash also hit the fourty-goal mark in 2008-09. While Crosby may be amongst the elite of Canadian NHLers, he doesn't necessarily possess the same individual "star power" that makes him stand out amongst other skilled Canadian players as Ovechkin does.

The bottom line is that CTV is catering to an audience of Canadian hockey fans (or so they thought), and thus a feature documenting the rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin, Canada and Russia, is going to be biased. They are telling us what they think we want to hear, showing us what they think we want to see. This is not to say that all Canadians share the sentiments about Crosby and Ovechkin so often expressed through the media or that they even view Crosby in a more favourable light. As for Wyshynski's assertion that the feature didn't answer the question of "who's better?" as implicitly promised, is that really necessary anymore? Honestly, I tired of this so-called rivalry quite some time ago; can't we just appreciate both players for what they contribute to the sport we love? I can't help but think that one Toronto media tour does not give Greg Wyshynski the right to make generalizations about Canadian hockey fans and the diverse contributions to the world of sports media that we have to offer.

If my take on the Crosby vs. Ovechkin saga doesn't do it for you, maybe this one courtesy of Bloge Salming will:

Comic gold.

Alright, now that that's over with:

Minnesota tomorrow.

The Wild appear to be back to their notoriously stingy selves after winning a 1-0 snoozer against the Avs last night, and are 11-4-3 in their last eighteen games. Minnesota is another team that doesn't have best of luck at the 'Dome, and Flames fans should hope that that trend continues as it appears their injury situation may be getting worse by the day. Adam Pardy left practice early this morning while Iginla, Nystrom, and Conroy were given the day off for "maintenance." There have been no updates on Cory Sarich, who appears to be suffering from an incurable Forsberg-esque foot ailment, which is concerning, but not dire. That being said, Sutter expects everyone but Sarich to play Friday, which probably means that they will all be sitting in the press box with emergency call-ups from Abbotsford taking their respective places in the lineup.

Game time is 7:00PM on Flames PPV.

Go Flames Go.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Homeward Bound

The Flames closed out their six-game road trip with a 2-1 loss to the Kings in L.A. last night on the heels of a valiant effort in San Jose on Saturday. The Flames struggled to find the back of the net for the third straight game after a five-goal outburst in Nashville, scoring only four times in those three games. More concerning for the boys in red is their ineffective powerplay--which essentially cost them the game last night--and the ability of the opposition to shut down the top line of Iginla, Jokinen, and whoever else happens to be playing alongside them.

When the Flames were down by a goal in the second and third periods, I found that they tried to do too much offensively (i.e. Phaneuf's no-look backhand pass in the Kings' zone that promptly found its way onto the stick of an L.A. player), and as a result gave up some good quality scoring chances despite limiting the Kings to sixteen shots on goal. The speedy Kings forwards got around the Flames' defence on several occasions--particularly Adam Pardy, who did not have a good game--and exposed the hole left on the blueline with the absence of Regehr. Clearly Sutter lied through his teeth when he said that Regehr would be "fine," as he obviously wasn't "fine" enough to play last night.

I know that the Flames are going to run into hot goalies every so often (and it seems to be very often lately), but they still have to find a way to score goals, on the powerplay and at even strength. Removing Bourque from the top line probably doesn't help, and as Kent points out at M&G, it makes perfect sense that the team's best left winger should skate on the first line, especially since the line of Dawes-Langkow-Moss was operating so smoothly in his absence. Langkow and Bourque clearly have chemistry, so I'm not going to object to him playing on the second line too much, but this first-line-winger business is getting a little ridiculous.

I noticed on a few powerplay opportunities that all five Flames players were concentrated down low, around the net or between the faceoff circles, with little to no coverage on the points or on the boards, especially when they were really pressing for the tying goal. This made it easy for the Kings' penalty killers to intercept passes and clear the zone. While I don't advocate simply blasting the puck from the point and not moving it around, a good powerplay employs a little of both strategies, and the Flames seem to opt for either or. I feel like the faceoff debate is somewhat of a moot point now, but it was painfully evident how the Flames' failure to win draws effected their momentum last night, particularly on special teams and in the dying minutes of the third period.

I don't want to take too much away from what was a very good effort and a successful road trip overall. I thought that Giordano had an excellent game; he was a force at both ends of the ice--especially on a play where he held the puck in just inside the blueline after almost losing it two or three times. He also drew a penalty and was +1 in just over twenty-one minutes of ice time. The third line of Glencross-Conroy-Nystrom was also very good, they were skating and forechecking well and created what seemed like the majority of the Flames' scoring chances before Conroy was injured in an open-ice collision with a Kings player. I'm not sure why people seem to think it's a leg injury, he had an ice pack on his wrist on the bench. Sutter says he's "fine," which likely means he won't be playing tomorrow against the Thrashers.

Finally, some congratulations are in order:

- To Jay Bouwmeester, who played his 500th career game last night, playing over thirty minutes in the process and finishing the evening +1.
- And to Curtis Glencross, who recently got engaged (!). Happy times.

Atlanta tomorrow.

The Thrashers (15-9-3) have never won in Calgary since their inception in the 1999-2000 season, which seems to be a recipe for disaster in the Flames' first game home after a long road trip. Kovalchuk+Afinogenov+Antropov+Some Wonderkid Thrashers Goalie-Regehr=Shit.

If the Leafs can beat Atlanta, I should hope that the Flames are equally capable.

Go Flames Go.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First rule of pessimism: Prepare for the worst and you'll never be disappointed

I didn't see any of the Flames' last game in Phoenix (thanks, Sportsnet...kissing the NFL's ass) but it doesn't seem like I missed much. This game sounds like it was almost an exact replica of the one played between the two clubs last time they met at the 'Dome in mid-November, only the Flames came out on the losing end of things this time around when Taylor Pyatt danced around Mark Giordano and put the winning goal five-hole on a confused Kiprusoff in the dying minutes of the game. Perhaps
all that praise was a little premature. We still love you Gio. Everyone's alllowed one fuck-up, that was yours. Losing to the Coyotes doesn't carry the same stigma as it once did, but the loss still stings after this team looked so good in their rout of the Predators earlier in the week.

Bourque led the team in shots on goal with four in his return from injury, which speaks volumes of the Flames' offensive effort on Thursday. His linemates Iginla and Jokinen registered one and three shots, respectively. Given the heroics of Kiprusoff in this game, the Flames probably deserved a better fate, but it's in the past now so let's suck it up and prepare to get blown out of the water by the Sharks.

First rule of pessimism: prepare for the worst and you'll never be disappointed.

Thinking about this game, against the best team in the league, in their building, against the best line in hockey, makes me feel physically sick. Memories of last season's January victory at the Shark Tank, San Jose's first home regulation loss of the season, which artificially cemented the Flames' status as a Western Conference elite come to mind. That might have also been the last time I was so nervous about a regular season game. I will be more than satisfied with an overtime loss, if the Flames are lucky enough to push the game into extra time.

Needless to say they will have to get off to a good start and capitalize on their opportunities; playing catch-up against a team of the Sharks' calibre on the road is not advisable. Kiprusoff and the Flames defence will surely be tested often, and need to be at the top of their respective games. The Flames held an optional skate this morning so it will be interesting to see if Sutter adjusts the defence pairings for the purpose of tonight's match-up. The forward lines appear unchanged.

One stat that jumps out when comparing these two teams is faceoff percentage. I have been whining about the Flames' ineptitude in the faceoff circle for quite some time now, and it doesn't seem to be improving--in fact, they now sit dead last in the league in faceoff percentage at 46.8% while the Sharks are first with a 56.3% success rate. The Flames' best option on the dot is Dustin Boyd--operating at 50.5%. While Sutter, a go-to faceoff man in his day, claims the team is working on faceoff strategies, this is quite the fall from grace for a squad that ranked eighth in the league in the same category last season.

By the way, Joe Thornton is on a ten-game point streak. Kill me now.

Game time is 8PM on CBC. Heatley is a game-time decision with flu-like symptoms.

Go Flames Go.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Game day musings--BORK BORK BORK

I awoke today like a kid on Christmas morning, eager to find out if Rene Bourque would be suiting up for the Flames tonight against the Desert Dogs, and to my utter delight I found out that he will be. Not only will good ol' #17 return to the lineup this evening, but he will be playing on the first line, fulfilling the dreams of Flames fans since the 2009-10 season began two months ago. The second line of Dawes-Langkow-Moss has found undeniable chemistry in Bourque's six-game absence, particularly Moss and Dawes, who has goals in each of his last four games, and I see no reason to break them up at this point in time.

Lundmark has been sent down to Abbotsford with the return of Rene, and has reinforced his reputation as a reliable farmhand with three points in six games with the big club and a shootout winner in Columbus. We thank you for your services, Jamie, but I think we are all terribly excited to see Bourque back in action this soon. While it will be tough for Bourque to regain his team scoring lead after Jarome "Star of the Month" Iginla took over with a too-hot-to-handle November, I expect him to pick up where he left off, and hopefully he will be rewarded with a new contract sooner rather than later.

The Flames are in Phoenix today for their second meeting of the season with the 'Yotes. Apparently Jim Vandermeer is some kind of clutch offensive performer now. Who knew? Cory Sarich remains at home in Calgary with a lower-body injury, likely something to do with the foot injury that was troubling him earlier this season, and the fact that the Flames have been successful without him thus far further fuels speculation that he could be part of a deal for a top-six forward. With Sarich out, Giordano has been promoted to the second pairing with Jay Bouwmeester, and seems to be a perfect fit. Both are agile and handle the puck well, with Gio, who recorded twenty-four hits in November, holding the physical edge over Bo, who blocked twenty-one shots in the aforementioned month. Team Awesome!

Phoenix has won two straight games and is 8-5-0 at home, while the Flames have won four straight and tied a franchise record for points in ten straight road games with their 5-0 man-handling of the Nashville Predators on Monday night, good for a record of 10-1-3 away from the 'Dome. This is utterly mind-boggling to me, considering how notoriously crappy the Flames have been on the road in recent seasons, and I'm wondering if this is simply a result of the coaching change or if something has really changed in the team's overall psyche.

The Flames' powerplay has shown signs of life in recent games, moving up to a respectable ninth in the league, while the penalty kill continues to operate at a rate of 87.3% on the road, having allowed only seven powerplay goals in fourteen road games. All predictions I've read for this game have the Flames winning either 3-1 or 4-1, but I don't think it'll be that easy, despite their record of dominance in Glendale. Given the play of Kiprusoff (2.27 GAA, .925 SV%) and Bryzgalov (2.12 GAA, .919 SV%) , I expect a close game which may even go into extra time.

In other news, Jiri Tlusty was traded by the Leafs today to the Hurricanes in exchange for prospect Phillipe Paradis. So long, Jiri. Your antics and subsequent embarrassing photos provided me with cheap laughs and endless minutes of entertainment. Enjoy life in the AHL. Then again, the 'Canes offensive depth is so miserable that you might just get a shot.




Game time is 7:30 PM on Flames PPV

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