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Streaking Calgary Flames ready to take aim at NHL's upper crust

CALGARY - They're the hottest team in the NHL, but not yet ready to declare themselves among the league's elite.

The first club this season to beat the San Jose Sharks in regulation at home Thursday, the Calgary Flames are on an 18-4-3 run that has put then firmly atop the Northwest Division.

In head coach Mike Keenan's three categories of clubs - underdog, contender and favourite - he says his Flames are in the high per centile of the middle category. For the Flames to be a favourite, Keenan contends they'd have to be top four.

"We're pushing towards that level," he said Friday. "With the exception of games in hand with Washington, we still have three teams, or four if you want to include Washington, way ahead of the pace in the regular season and that's Boston, San Jose and Detroit."

The Flames (27-12-4) were tied for fifth overall with Montreal in the NHL behind those four clubs heading into a weekend of back-to-back games. Calgary has Phoenix at home Saturday and are on the road Sunday versus Colorado.

Calgary's victory over conference-leading San Jose was their second in as many weeks after beating the Sharks 5-2 at Pengrowth Saddledome on Jan. 6.

The Flames are nine points up with three games in hand on the plummeting Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest. Calgary aims for home-ice advantage in the post-season, which they haven't had since their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004

"It's nice to be out in front though because it's a matter of us winning our games and not having to rely on other teams," defenceman Robyn Regehr said. "We're always looking at the standings because we have to see where we're at."

The majority of the Flames did not skate Friday, but boarded a bus at the Saddledome to attend the funeral of co-owner Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman, who died earlier in the week of prostate cancer at the age of 86.

That event and facing the Sharks in back-to-back weeks created a tension among the Flames that contributed to a four-game winning streak, Regehr said.

"We're on a little bit of a roll and then what happened with Doc Seaman and the history we have with the Sharks this year, there was just a whole bunch of things that have happened lately and it's made for some good emotional hockey from us," he explained.

It was a demoralizing 6-1 loss in San Jose on Nov. 13 that triggered the Calgary's surge.

A planned California mini-break was cancelled after that game and the Flames went straight home instead. Calgary's defence, one of the worst in the league to that point, was overhauled over four straight days of practice.

Since then, more disciplined and structured defensive coverage has made goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's game better. The former Vezina Trophy winner has found his consistency and made important saves when his team needed them.

A penalty kill that was once middling is top four in the league. The Flames defence crept to mid-pack in goals allowed at 2.5 per game.

"Miikka has been unbelievable, but I think the thing is we're not giving him two-on-ones or breakaways," winger Craig Conroy explained. "Scoring chances, we were probably giving up 20 to 25 scoring chances on average a game and since then, it's more like 11, 12 or 13."

The Flames have also won recently without abundant contributions from captain Jarome Iginla, who had yet to score a goal in January, and offensive defenceman Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf's game-winning goal Thursday was his first since Nov. 11.

Forwards Daymond Langkow, Mike Cammalleri and Rene Bourque gave the Flames scoring depth on their recent run.

Langkow has seven goals and 10 assists in the 25 games since the loss to San Jose, including five goals and three assists in his last five. Cammalleri chipped in 12 goals and 12 assists and Bourque added 14 goals and nine assists in that span over that 25-game span.

"I've never been on a team as deep as this with guys scoring," Conroy said.

Kiprusoff has played all but four of Calgary's 43 games. The Finn is accustomed to workload of over 70 a season and Keenan didn't seem inclined to sit his star goalie this weekend.

"After the all-star break, we'll have to really examine what we're doing in terms of his play," Keenan said.

The Flames' reluctance to declare themselves a Stanley Cup frontrunner was because the players felt they hadn't earned that label yet.

"If you go out there and prove it and you do it night in and night out and season after season, then you can do that and you earn that respect," Regehr said.

"We're trying to work in that directions and we've taken some really good strides and that's the point I'm trying to get across here. We can't get too far ahead of ourselves."


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