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Flames' playoff hopes still flickering heading into all-star break

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

CALGARY - The Calgary Flames' fortunes look brighter than they did a month ago.

A 7-3-3 January bumped the club from 14th to 12th in the NHL's Western Conference, but more importantly just two points out of a playoff berth. Only six points separates fourth from 12th in the conference heading into the all-star break.

The Flames (24-21-6) feel good about their game and the fact they're in the post-season race.

They're also one of the oldest teams in the NHL needing to win nearly 70 per cent of their remaining 31 games, and that's if 95 points is the magic number for a playoff berth.

"It does feel good to be able to catch a couple of teams and be more in the mix, but it's still a ton of work ahead of us," captain Jarome Iginla cautioned.

Depending on who is in the lineup on a given night, Calgary's average age hovers around 30, which is second only to the Detroit Red Wings.

Questions over how much they have in the tank will continue, but it was possibly the Flames' collective experience that kept them from panicking last month, when they looked like an old, slow and expensive team going nowhere.

They were second-last in the conference and eight points out of the playoffs when the team announced Dec. 28 that GM Darryl Sutter was asked to resign and he had complied.

Head coach Brent Sutter, Darryl's brother, set the goal of winning two of every three games starting Dec. 23 in Dallas.

Calgary is well ahead of that pace with an 10-3-3 record since then. Their current four-game winning streak includes victories over Vancouver, Dallas and Nashville, ranked first, third and fourth in the West respectively.

The Flames need to keep that momentum going through their outdoor game at McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20, when they host the Montreal Canadiens in the Heritage Classic.

Calgary's position is still precarious. The conference is so tight a pair of losses sends them tumbling back down the standings.

"Things can change overnight," Brent Sutter said. "When you're not playing, other teams are. You've just got to continue to worry about your own business."

Winger Alex Tanguay scoffs at the notion the Flames are too long in the tooth to maintain their current pace.

"You look at our skating the last few games. Does anybody look like he doesn't have the juice anymore?" he said. "We're skating good. I'm 31 and I think I'm skating better than I have the last three or four years."

Moving centre Brendan Morrison to the top line with Iginla and Tanguay and parking enforcer Tim Jackman in front of the net on the power play are key recent moves by Brent Sutter. Morrison has three goals and two assists in his last four games.

Calgary's once-moribund power-play has sputtered to life with six goals in the last four games, including three by David Moss. Jackman creates room for his fellow forwards by taking one opposing defender out of the equation, according to Tanguay.

"He's a tough guy to move and it becomes a four-on-three," he explained. "At four-on-three, it's much easier to move the puck than five-on-four."

Here's a look at the good and the bad in Calgary heading into the all-star break. First, the good news:

—Goals per game up slightly from 2.7 to 2.8 since Dec. 29, thanks to some secondary scoring from Morrison and Moss.

—Road record in January was 4-1-2, moving Calgary from 27th in the league last month to 21st.

—After an early-season slump, Iginla has 12 points in his last 10 games.

—Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff worked himself out of the worst patch of his career _ he was pulled in two games mid-month _ with a .948 save percentage over three straight wins.

The bad:

—Goals-against up from 2.9 to 3 over the last month. The Flames deny they're playing high-risk hockey in their scramble for points, but acknowledge they need to tighten up defensively.

—Power play showing improvement, but at 16.2 per cent ranks 23rd in the league.

—Virtually no room to manoeuvre off-ice. Calgary is a salary-cap team and acting general manager Jay Feaster has 11 roster players with no-trade or no-movement contracts. With the trade deadline just a month away, the AGM may have to go with what he's got.

The Flames put Ales Kotalik on waivers Thursday to try and shed his $3-million salary. Kotalik went on waivers last summer, but when there were no takers, Calgary put him back on the active roster. The Czech forward has three goals this season and was a healthy scratch the last three games.

Putting 39-year-old winger Craig Conroy and his $500,000 salary on waivers this week may have been a minor business transaction, but it's of major importance to Flames fans because they love the affable Conroy.

The Potsdam, N.Y., native, who has played over 1,000 NHL games, is leaning towards retirement instead of reporting to the AHL's Abbotsford Heat, but said Thursday he'll take until the end of the weekend to make decision.

Meanwhile, the Flames are fixated on taking at least four out of every six points with the occasional lift of the head to peak the standings. Their schedule in February is favourable as nine of 13 games, including the Heritage Classic, are at home.

"It's up to us and we haven't done it up until lately," defenceman Cory Sarich said. "I just want to continue and keep it going because it's way more enjoyable."


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