CALGARY – The Calgary Flames are in familiar territory looking for a different outcome.
The Flames came out of the all-star break with 52 points in 50 games, a pace identical to last season after 50.
Calgary ended up finishing 10th in the Western Conference and three points out of the final playoff spot last year.
If they’re to avoid sitting out the post-season a third year in a row, the Flames need to win, at minimum, two out of every three of their remaining 31. Even that might not be enough.
The West is once again tightly packed with just six points separating seventh from 12th on Wednesday.
Calgary was tied for 10th and three points out of a playoff spot at 23-22-6. The Flames host the Chicago Blackhawks (29-15-7) on Friday.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking at the standings and looking at our situation,” winger Alex Tanguay said Wednesday. “I think we all do it.
“We were right in there last year and for some reason in March we fell back a little bit. Certainly it’s on all of us now to make sure we get those extra points, those extra three points we were short of last year, to get ourselves in the playoffs.”
The win-two-of-three mantra was a clearly stated team goal to end last season and to begin this one. Head coach Brent Sutter has altered the message, however, and broken objectives down to even smaller pieces in hopes of achieving results.
“A year ago, winning two out of every three is something we really focused in on and talked a lot as a group,” Sutter said. “We wanted to do it from the start of the season, but it kind of didn’t have the steam it needed to have the inside the room for various reasons. It’s no one’s fault for it. It just didn’t happen and so you focus in on other goals.”
Sutter now emphasizes goals within the game for individual players. He wants them thinking about their execution instead of obsessing over grabbing four points out of every six.
One reason for a shift in the message is the Flames have moved players in and out of the lineup recently via injuries and trades, he explained.
In January, forwards Rene Bourque and Brendan Morrison and defenceman Brendan Mikkelson were traded and forward Mike Cammalleri and centre Blair Jones were acquired. Injuries prompted call-ups from the AHL with forward Krys Kolanos the most recent reinforcement summoned Wednesday.
“The focus this year has been more on individuals and part of it because of a lot of different bodies in our lineup and young kids in our lineup,” Sutter said. “(It’s) focusing more on ‘what’s more important in this shift you’re giving us right now’ and coming back and focusing on the next shift.”
“Dynamics are different, but when it’s all said and done, hopefully the goal is the same and you win two out of every three. You put it in smaller terms, but ultimately you want your goal to be the same at the end of the day.”
A perceived lack of offence is the buzz around the Flames these days after scoring one goal in two straight losses.
But more at issue is Calgary was tied in the third period against two elite teams and didn’t seize the moment. The Flames fell 1-0 to San Jose last week before the all-star break and 3-1 to Detroit on Tuesday.
Goalscoring, Tanguay said, is not the problem.
“If we’d won yesterday’s game 2-1, even though we’d only score two goals we wouldn’t hear anything about it because we won,” he said, quite correctly.
“Right now, whether we win with five goals or whether we win with one goal, we’re all about getting points,” Tanguay continued. “I don’t think there’s problems with offence with this team. We have guys who are capable of putting points on the board, but like I’ve said, we’re looking at winning games and if we have to do it with a 1-0 win we’ll take that.”
The Flames spent over half an hour closeted with the coaching staff prior to stepping on the ice Wednesday.
Cammalleri, who came to Calgary on Jan. 13 in the Bourque trade with Montreal, hinted there was heat in Sutter’s words.
“We talked, coached talked and from my short time here, it seems like he’s that kind of coach. He likes to wear his emotions on his sleeve and tells you how he feels and be honest with you,” Cammalleri said.
Sutter said his message was for his players to bear down at crucial moments in games.
“In a game like last night, for example, it’s 1-1, stay with your game, don’t be the team that’s going to break,” he said. “You get into these games and in the last 10 minutes, you have tonail it. You have to be razor shop in everything you do. You can’t miss an assignment and that’s what we basically talked about.”
That the Flames are in striking distance of the playoffs is due in large part to goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. Of the goaltenders in the NHL who played 40 games or more Wednesday, the Finnish workhorse ranked fourth in save percentage at .919.
Flames management vows every year to play the backup more to conserve Kiprusoff for later in the season and again, it hasn’t happened.
The 35-year-old has played all but seven games this season, in part because regular backup Henrik Karlsson missed 25 games with sprained knee ligament.
Karlsson is expected back in the lineup Friday, but may not play soon because Calgary can’t afford to sit Kiprusoff now.
“We’re in a position where we have to play our No. 1 goalie,” Sutter said Wednesday. “That’s just what it is, yet I do know there’s certain point in our schedule that we’re going to have to use our backup.”
If Kiprusoff appears in 26 of the remaining 31, he’ll have played 70 or more games for the seventh straight year.
Winger Lee Stempniak left Tuesday’s game with a “lower-body” injury. Sutter didn’t provide an update on his status following Wednesday’s practice.
In addition to calling up Kolanos, the Flames announced they’d signed the 30-year-old to a two-year, two-way contract worth US$1.05 million. Kolanos has played 136 NHL games for Phoenix, Edmonton and Minnesota.
“He’s getting an opportunity now again to prove he can play in the National Hockey League, so there’s incentive for him to come in here and play well,” Sutter said. “That’s what we want from him.”