With the win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, the Flames put 10 points between themselves and their nearest competitor (the scummy Canucks) in the NW division. That is despite having a relatively lackluster month of February relative to December and January, where the club lost just 5 times in regulation.
While a sudden spate of injuries to Rene Bourque, Daymond Langkow and Mark Giordano has raised some concerns, the truth of the matter is: the picture hasn't been rosier in Calgary for a long, long time.
The Flames success thus far isn't an artifact of luck or bounces. They lead the NW in terms of GF (191) and GD (+17) and they also have the best home record (21-7-4) in the division. What's more, the Flames have been a strong out-shooting/possession team at even-strength this year, predicated mainly on their impressive array of depth forwards.
That's right - depth at forward. the last time something like that was said about the Flames was probably the early 90's.
David Moss, Curtis Glencross, Matthew Lombardi, Craig Conroy, Rene Bourque and - to a lesser extent - Dustin Boyd have formed a formidable secondary and teritiary attack behind the likes of Iginla, Cammalleri and Langkow (and Bertuzzi...I guess). Even Eric Nystrom and Andre Roy have better than advertised this year.
I was pessimistic coming into the season, given the losses of Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius from the top of the rotation - especially since the Flames sank or swam with their top players last year as the bottom end of the roster (Yelle, Boyd, Nystrom, Lombardi, Godard, Smith and Nilson) was a black-hole of suck. And while I recognized the potential for improvement with the additions of Bourque and Glencross, it felt like a poor gamble to expect the newly assembled support players to improve to any remarkable degree.
Well, the gamble paid off. Moss and Glencross have been monsters by the corsi metric this year (+187 and +226 respectively), combining on the Flames third unit to pretty much destroy the other third lines they've faced. Rene Bourque was leading the team in ES points and had already bested his career highs before being felled by a high ankle sprain, while guys like Lombardi and Conroy have both proven capable first line (or third line) centers in a pinch. Lombardi in particular has enjoyed a big bump in the quality of his linemates relative to last season and his underlying numbers at ES have improved accordingly. In fact, his efficiency at ES is superior to Jarome Iginla's as it stands currently.
Which brings me to the only disappointment thus far. While Moss et al have been providing great value at bargain basement prices, the big ticket players have been rather disappointing. Jarome Iginla is on pace for his lowest goal total in nearly a decade, his corsi number is middle of the pack on the team and he trails 5 other players (Lombo, Glencross, Conroy, Bourque and Cammalleri) in terms of efficiency at even-strength.
Iginla is neither shooting nor scoring as often as he did the previous two seasons. It's unclear whether this has to do with a reduction in his quality of linemates or some hidden personal factor (older, nagging injury, etc) but his drop in production can't be blamed on reduced ice-time - the capatin is right in line with his previous TOI at ES and his PP ice has actually increased relative to last year.
Dion Phaneuf's struggles have also been well publicized. His plus/minus is ghastly and the puck hasn't been going in with much regularity. Phaneuf has had a lot of problems elevating his defensive game in the wake of this big raise, and it remains to be seen if he'll become the well-rounded player his $6.5M/year demands. The youngster could probably use a stronger partner going into the sretch drive and into the play-offs (Vandermeer and Pardy don't quite cut it given Phaneuf's erratic nature) so I half expect Sutter to search for another top 4 defender now that Giordano is down for the count.One things for certain, though - Phaneuf won't be vying for the Norris this year.
While Iginla has shown signs of waking up the last few games, perhaps the best emerging news for Flames fans is the February Miikka Kiprusoff has put together: his SV% through 11 games is .922, despite the fact the club in front of him has been giving up a lot more shots and quality scoring chances as compared to their aforementioned efforts in December and January. His ES SV% over that span has been an even more impressive .930*, which is reminiscent of his Vezina form of 05/06.
(The corsi rates over that time frame are instructive. The team has a lot more players in the red when compared to the season as a whole. Also, Bertuzzi has clearly been a lead anchor this month by this metric at -38. If the percentages weren't so favorable with him on the ice, the fans would be burning him in effigy right now).
Kipper had an ugly, ugly start to the year and was fairly mediocre during the clubs notable mid-season run, but might be the biggest reason for the Flames have points in 8 striaght games this month. If he can sustain these gains, the Flames GD should continue to climb as will their fortunes and potential for success in the play-offs.
The Flames aren't free-and-clear, of course. Replacing Boruque and Giordano won't be easy and the club faces an ugly 7 game road trip in the beginning of March that includes stops in unfriendly places (Phildelphia, New Jersey, Detroit). In addition, it would be nice if Calgary could regain the form the form that saw them charge up the standings post-Sharks-debacle, especially now that Kiprusoff seems to (finally) be back on track.
All that said, it's good times in Calgary these days. Third in the conference is all but sown up and the Flames likely won't be coasting into the first round as fodder for the contenders for the first time since Sutter kicked himself upstairs.