It’s Dec. 1, do you know where your Northwest Division club is?
If you’re a devotee of the Calgary Flames, the answer to that question is encouraging, perhaps surprisingly so given what had seemed to be a gruesome November schedule.
Calgary posted a 10-2-2 record during the 11th month and in the process turned a seven-point deficit behind Colorado for top spot in the Northwest into a two-point advantage with two games in hand. The Flames made their big move despite a road-heavy November schedule (or perhaps because of it, given Calgary home-road performance split so far this quirky season) and despite a loss in their only head-to-head meeting with the aforementioned Avalanche.
Brent Sutter’s troops and Brent Sutter himself are starting to receive the type of fawning commentary from the TV talking heads — "The hardest team in the NHL to play against!" raves Sportsnet’s Doug MacLean — that suggests the Flames have firmly established themselves as the team to beat in the Northwest.
Then again, no one can satisfactorily answer the chicken-or-egg question: "Is the Flames’ upturn in results the product of the team finally catching on to Sutter’s much-discussed system or is the success of the system implementation being assumed because of the happy win-loss record?"
While acknowledging it’s very dangerous to make assumptions on something as flimsy and potentially misleading as shots on goal, know this — the Flames outshot their opponents just six times in 14 November games and surrendered 40 shots on goal on three separate occasions (while winning all three of those games). Also, Calgary benefitted from .942 save-percentage goaltending by Miikka Kiprusoff and Curtis McElhinney during November (a figure which jumps to an even more amazing .955 if you could somehow erase that seven-goals-allowed-on-26-shots emabarrassment at the hands of the ultra-opportunistic Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 19).
Special teams continue to be a sticking point, even if the penalty-killing numbers were exaggerated by that Nov. 19 game against the Blackhawks, who that night went four-for-five with the man advantage. After starting the month by surviving 15 of 16 shorthanded situations, the Flames were torched for 10 power-play goals in 38 chances the rest of the month (a puny 73.7 per cent kill rate).
Calgary was slightly in the red in terms of power plays for and against in November (two more chances against than for) and for the season only Ottawa and Montreal have forced opponents into fewer penalties.
On the flip side, the Flames were dynamite at even strength during the past month, allowing a mere 14 goals in 14 games (although this is a good time to once again mention that .942 Kiprusoff-McElhinney save percentage).
Bottom line, it’s OK to be encouraged with a tinge of giddiness if you’re a Flames fan, but there’s still plenty of statistical and visual evidence that plenty of work remains to be done.