Friday, December 19, 2003
Updated: December 20, 3:51 PM ET
Flames undergoing red-hot reversal
By Jim Kelley
Seemingly all of Canada celebrates the newfound success of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Vancouver Canucks, it would appear, are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
The Ottawa Senators are returning to elite status after a rocky start. Montreal is contending for a playoff spot after a two-year absence, and the Edmonton Oilers just completed a whiz-bang deal to move Mike Comrie and upgrade their defensive corps.
So what have the Calgary Flames, no-shows in each of the last six postseasons, done lately?
Just win -- a lot.
That 5-0 trouncing of the Bruins in Boston on Thursday is the apex of an amazing run during which the Flames, perennial Western Conference doormats, lost just one regulation game in their past 15 starts. The run has moved Calgary to 16-9-2-3. A year ago at this point, the Flames were 9-16-5-3.
What's truly spectacular about the turnaround is that the Flames are still on the hobble. No.1 goalie Roman Turek has been out for most of the season with a bad knee. Center Stephane Yelle is playing on a bad knee, and centers Stephen Reinprecht, Craig Conroy and Blair Betts have been missing time with leg, knee and shoulder injuries respectively.
The Flames' strength, however, has been solid team play and outstanding goaltending from recently acquired Miikka Kiprusoff (late of the San Jose Sharks) and longtime backup Jamie McLennan. In addition, Jarome Iginla, the most recognizable Flames player, has returned to his true scoring form. Iginla has been especially effective on the road, scoring nine goals (against just two at home), including a pair against the suddenly slumping Bruins. That's balanced by Shean Donovan, who lights the lamp at home (11 goals) but not on the road (one).
All that was to be expected. The Flames have been building from within for far too many years, but the effort is finally playing off. If there was a move that brought the team forward (aside from the acquisition of Kiprusoff), it was getting Rhett Warrener, a veteran defenseman from the Buffalo Sabres.
Warrener has provided some grit on Calgary's back end and has become the defenseman coach Darryl Sutter tries to match against the other team's best player. In a recent win at Philadelphia, Sutter matched Warrener against Keith Primeau. Primeau was dominating some of Calgary's younger defensemen, but Warrener moved over and even dropped the gloves to send a message to Primeau and his own Calgary teammates.
"In the first period, he (Primeau) was a dominant player after we got up one," said Sutter. "Especially some of our young guys couldn't handle him down low. (Matthew) Lombardi had a hard time with him; (Jordan) Leopold had a hard time. He took over in the second half of the first period. Rhett Warrener recognized that."
And played accordingly.
There are no guarantees with Warrener or the Flames. Warrener has had years in the past when he looked like the rock a team could build a defense around, only to see it all come apart in both Florida and Buffalo. The Flames, meanwhile, are still a too-young team that has had problems sustaining excellence in the past. But this Flames team looks for all the world like a playoff contender. That in itself is a significant step forward.
If Warrener continues to bring his "A" game all season, it's likely the Flames will make it.
|IN THE SLOT
"I want to be the best goalie to come through Buffalo. Sorry, Dom (Hasek). Then after that, I want to figure out how to win a Stanley Cup. If it takes watching Patrick Roy games in slow motion, that's what I'll do. If it takes watching every game Martin Brodeur has played, so be it."
-- Buffalo Sabres goaltending prospect Ryan Miller, just days after he was shelled 7-2 by the Detroit Red Wings and returned to the minor leagues.
Ducks shopping in Florida
In the wake of losing Mike Comrie to the Philadelphia Flyers (for now at least), the Mighty Ducks are said to have shopped around in Florida for either Olli Jokinen or Kristian Huselius. Jokinen likely isn't going anywhere, given he's the team's leading scorer and is blossoming into a team leader, but Huselius has been a healthy scratch on a regular basis and is drawing attention from several teams.
Anaheim has an interest because Ducks GM Bryan Murray drafted Huselius for Florida when he was the GM there in 1997. Huselius has talent and has topped the 20-goal mark in each of his first two NHL seasons, but he's considered a soft player and has been in coach and general manager Rick Dudley's dog house for weeks.
We've been stuck on anniversaries lately, but for good reason; they've been interesting. Another one passed Thursday, the year to date that Tony Granato took over for Bob Hartley behind the bench in Colorado. Granato's Avs had gone 48-19-9-5 in the 81 games he's been at the helm. Not too shabby, Tony.
Running out of steam?
There has to be a reason the Rangers have been outscored 10-4 in the third period through their last eight games, including Thursday night's 4-3 win against the New York Islanders. The Rangers had that game in the bag, leading 3-1 in the third, but the Islanders came back to close the gap before finally losing 4-3. The Rangers have a 3-5 record in those eight games and have been outshot 93-61.
In addition, Rangers goalie Mike Dunham has been struggling. Though he looked unbeatable in two wins against the Islanders, Dunham is only 2-6-2 in his last 10 decisions.
Are the New York Rangers out of shape, just too old, or maybe a little panic-prone?
Sather, Lindros apparently at odds
There appears to be a little friction between Eric Lindros and Rangers coach Glen Sather. Sather recently told the New York media that Lindros "has a problem with the coach right now. A lot of them (Rangers players) do." The remark was considered odd in that Lindros has made no public comments about Sather despite being shifted from center to wing and back again and despite playing on different lines and sometimes having his ice time limited.
Lindros has steadfastly refused comment about all the changeups and even overlooked some pointed words from Sather regarding his numerous injuries. However, a recent article in the New York Post went to great lengths to point out that Sather was misusing Lindros. The thinking is that Sather was getting a point across that he considered Lindros the source for the Post's story.
Flyers concerned about Hackett
What concerns the Flyers is not the losing (they have points to spare this season), but that Jeff Hackett was in goal for all three losses. The Flyers are a good-bordering-on-great team, but they are not explosive on offense and have to work for their goals.
There is concern that Hackett is not the answer. He's played well enough this season, registering a 1.99 goals-against average, but in games when the win has been on the line, the Flyers have now lost three straight.
Hackett wasn't particularly sharp in a 3-3 tie with the Devils in New Jersey either. Philadelphia's other goalie, Robert Esche, has been injured of late, which is why Hackett is getting all the starts. The loss to the Lightning was particularly troublesome in that the Lightning had been struggling offensively yet came from behind twice in regulation and then won in overtime.
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock is trying to spread the blame around, saying his team has been careless with the puck, especially in its own end. That's been true up to a point, but when the Flyers do make a mistake, they want the goaltender to bail them out at least a part of the time. Hackett hasn't been doing that.
First it was New Jersey that tripped up the high-flying Philadelphia Flyers at home. After that it was Calgary in overtime and then Tampa Bay in overtime.
Comrie heading west?
Anaheim is still rumored to be a suitor as general manager Bryan Murray, rebuffed in an ugly affair with the Oilers, is seeking a center.
"When I talk to general managers and I agree to a deal, it's a deal," Murray said about the agreement he had with Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, which was scuttled when Lowe asked Comrie to top the deal off with more than $2 million. "There is probably lots (more) to be said, but I'll just keep it to myself.
"It's hard to score goals in this league. If we could get someone that could help us in that area, it would be huge."
It's not a given that the Ducks would trade goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, but it's not unreasonable either. The Ducks have a quality backup in Martin Gerber who has No. 1 potential and carried the team when Giguere struggled early in the season. They also have an outstanding prospect in their minor league system, Ilya Bryzgalov, who has a .922 save percentage in the American Hockey League.
The Flyers, however, will not settle for anything other than a No.1 goalie with Stanley Cup experience, which may cause Murray to go elsewhere to upgrade his center ice position.
The Phoenix Coyotes are also rumored to be in the hunt and are said to be dangling veteran goaltender Sean Burke. Sources tell ESPN.com the Coyotes are interested in Comrie because they like his style of play and have grown disenchanted with Chris Gratton, who hasn't delivered on a supposed role as a rugged centerman with a scorer's touch. Also, Phoenix GM Mike Barnett inquired about Comrie when the Oilers held his rights, but the two sides couldn't make a deal.
None of the pieces are in place yet, but there are unsubstantiated reports that Mike Comrie, the center the Philadelphia Flyers recently obtained from the Edmonton Oilers, could end up back in the Western Conference. The fact that Comrie signed a one-year deal with the Flyers on Saturday will not end the speculation.
Daniels wins in Pittsburgh
Daniels had been on a scouting mission after retiring as a player earlier this season. He said he got the call from GM Jim Rutherford and joined the team as a coach.
"It's been a crazy couple of days," he said.
To say the least. Ironically, Jeff's dad, Wayne, is a scout for the Penguins.
FYI: Mario Lemieux is still not practicing, not even skating and no one is even talking about his getting back to the lineup any time soon. ESPN.com reported last month that Lemieux's hip injury was more serious than had previously been reported. The Penguins have pretty much stopped even attempting to project a return date.
There was an interesting shuffle Thursday night in Pittsburgh, where the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Penguins: Jeff Daniels, who was drafted by the Penguins and played his first NHL game with the Penguins, was behind the bench for his first win as an assistant coach to newly named head coach Peter Laviolette as Carolina finally won there.
Blues' glue? It's Osgood
When New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur won against Atlanta, he moved to 18 wins, tops in the NHL. The goalie he broke away from? Chris Osgood of the St. Louis Blues.
Through Thursday night, Osgood had 17 wins, and his Blues had won six straight and were unbeaten in eight. They had lost just once in the previous 12 games. Many things are going well, but Osgood has been the glue.
The Blues are winning the close games. They are 6-1-2 in overtime this season, tying a franchise record with 53 games still to play.
The Blues have an interesting approach to overtime. Coach Joel Quenneville tells his players not to dump the puck in in the extra session. Quenneville acknowledges that his team may lose the puck a few times that way, but he'll take that risk. He has good puckhandlers on his team and feels that the advantage playing four-on-four goes to the team that can play a puck-possession game. Tossing it away on a dump-in doesn't play to his team's strengths.
FYI: Rob Ramage, a former St. Louis player, was charged with impaired operation causing death and dangerous driving causing death in the aftermath of the accident that caused the death of former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Keith Magnuson. The first charge can bring life imprisonment, though in Canada, where the charges were filed, there has never been a life-imprisonment sentence. Ramage lives in St. Louis where he is an account executive for A.G. Edwards.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.