CALGARY – Before this NHL season began, Calgary Flames head coach Mike Keenan grouped the 30 teams in the league under the following three categories: underdog, contender and favourite.
He pegged his own team as a contender with aspirations of moving up a level. Just past the quarter-pole in the regular season, the Flames (13-9-1) remain contenders because of a mid-month turnaround.
A 3-5 start to November had Calgary heading for underdog status. The Flames have won four of their last five to sit three points back of Northwest Division leader Vancouver.
“It’s kind of been a tale of two seasons,” Flames winger Todd Bertuzzi said Friday. “We’ve played extremely well and extremely bad and we’re starting to limit those bad games now.”
Calgary hosts the Canucks (14-7-2) on Saturday after beating them 4-3 in Vancouver on Thursday.
The Flames’ nadir in November was a 6-1 loss in San Jose on Nov. 13. The team used its subsequent four-day break in the schedule to shore up defensive zone coverage. Since then, they’ve averaged just over two goals against in five games.
“We were able to hone in a little bit on our defensive work and improve in that area and we’ve had better results because of that improvement,” Keenan said.
One of the reasons for Calgary’s turnaround has been the forwards exerting more pressure on the opposition in the neutral and offensive zones, which has eased the workload on the defence and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
“We’re really trying to get above the puck with our forecheck and our neutral zone forecheck to make it harder on the offensive players on the other team,” winger Mike Cammalleri explained. “They’ve got to go through one or two more guys or sticks to get their opportunities.”
Keenan attributes Calgary’s slow start to the growing pains of incorporating seven new players into the lineup this season.
“Detroit has one new player in their hockey club and that’s (Marian) Hossa,” he pointed out. “They’ve all played together and won the Cup together.
“They know their subtleties and nuances in the group itself and it takes awhile to develop those instincts that players have for each other. Our team had to work through some difficult situations to learn more about themselves and about each other and about team play.”
One newcomer who has found his stride is Cammalleri, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in the off-season.
The 26-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., played the opposite wing of captain Jarome Iginla for the last three games and has four goals, including his first career hat trick on Thursday. Iginla assisted on two of his goals in Vancouver.
Winger Craig Conroy, who has occasionally been Iginla’s linemate, says teammates tend to overpass to Iginla because of his laser shot.
Conroy thinks Cammalleri, second in team scoring behind Iginla with nine goals and 11 assists, has the instincts and confidence to shoulder some of the goalscoring load.
“He came in as a guy I said is going to push Jarome for the most goals on this team,” Conroy said. “Now he’s really rolling and feeling good. That’s the thing about Jarome. He is just a great passer that Cammalleri can finish.”
Due to injuries and in his search for offensive chemistry, Keenan has played mixmaster with his forward lines. Iginla and Cammalleri, between centre Matthew Lombardi on Thursday, seem to have struck a chord, which means the Iginla-Bertuzzi experiment is on hold for now.
“It’s all about chemistry,” Bertuzzi said. “Those three are playing extremely well so you can’t touch what’s going well.”
Calgary was 3-4-1 versus Vancouver last season and lost to the Canucks twice to open this season. So the Flames consider Thursday’s victory somewhat of a breakthrough against their divisional rival.
“They have 30 points already and we’re looking up at them,” Conroy said. “We can’t afford to have those losses. They could have really pulled away from us if they won last night.
“We found ways to lose to those guys last year and to start this year. That was a big confidence booster. Now we’ve got to go out and prove it to ourselves again.”
Notes: Keenan said forwards Dustin Boyd (upper body) and Wayne Primeau (lower body) are day-to-day. … The Flames did not skate Friday, but participated in off-ice workouts.