DENVER - With a new coach and a young squad, the Colorado Avalanche were picked by many prognosticators to finish in the back of the pack.
Way back - just as they did last season. Nearing the midway point of the season, though, the Avalanche are sitting in first place in the Northwest Division after a 3-2 win over Calgary on Sunday night. So much for pre-season predictions.
"Everyone picked us to finish last. That just motivated us," said Wojtek Wolski, who had a goal and an assist. "We kind of almost snuck up on a lot of teams. ... We're definitely a hard team to play against now."
The Flames certainly won't disagree.
Calgary coach Brent Sutter was quite displeased with his team's play, especially through the first two periods when the Flames were penalty prone and lacked discipline.
"I thought tonight's game was a very, very important game. But obviously it was just the coaches who thought that," Sutter said. "It's a tough league to be average in."
The Avalanche are 3-0 against the Flames this season, a fact that doesn't sit well with captain Jarome Iginla.
"We all knew the importance of it," Iginla said.
The Avalanche have won four of their last five to take a two-point lead over the Flames in the division.
Craig Anderson, making his second start since returning from a neck ailment, was solid in net all night. He stopped 19 shots, his best save coming in the second period when he stuffed Dustin Boyd on a breakaway chance.
"We kept the pressure on and continued to build off that," Anderson said.
Colorado jumped out to a 2-0 lead midway through the second period on goals from Wolski and Chris Stewart. But Rene Bourque quickly trimmed the deficit, scoring his ninth goal of the season just 1:17 later.
Just before the end of the second period, though, Darcy Tucker rammed in a shot near the goal crease. The goal was originally credited to TJ Galiardi, but an overhead view showed the puck had already trickled into the net before Galiardi touched it.
It was Tucker's first goal since Oct. 21 at Minnesota. The forward missed eight games because of a concussion after he was ridden into the boards by Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu on Oct. 23.
Mark Giordano drew the Flames within a goal with 6:44 remaining. Calgary pulled Miikka Kiprusoff for an extra attacker with around a minute remaining, but couldn't tie it.
The Flames are now 1-2-1 over their last four games. Asked how he's going to treat practice before a contest Tuesday night in St. Louis, Sutter simply said it was up to his players.
"I guess it's how they want to approach it," Sutter said. "Do they want to come businessmen-like, where games mean something, where they're important?"
The Avalanche took advantage of a 5-on-3 opportunity midway through the first period, scoring on Wolski's shot through the legs of Kiprusoff.
It was a first period that featured plenty of hard checks, sprawling saves and fisticuffs.
David Koci and Brian McGrattan squared off not even 2 minutes into the game, dropping their gloves and landing several blows before being separated and sent to the penalty box.
Later, Iginla and Cody McLeod got into a brawl near the Calgary goal. They grabbed the other's jersey and fell down and were quickly separated.
That was pretty much how the night progressed. When it was over, the Avalanche were back in first.
"We work hard," Avalanche first-year coach Joe Sacco said. "We play with lots of energy and the guys believe in the locker - that's the most important thing - they believe that we can win a division. And that's our ultimate goal. There's still a long way to go, but there's no reason why we can't stay there."
NOTES: There was a sparse crowd of 11,448 on hand for the game between two of the top teams in the Western Conference. ... Former University of Minnesota star Ryan Stoa made his NHL debut a day after getting called up by the Avs from the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL. He played more than 9 minutes and had two shots on goal. ... The Flames lost in regulation on the road for just the fourth time this season.