2011-2012 season preview: Calgary Flames

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2010-2011 record: 41-29-12, 94 points; 2nd in Northwest, 10th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Calgary is one of the most curious and maddening teams to follow. The Flames have been inconsistent at times, tough and brilliant at others thanks to Jarome Iginla. That said, they’ve been a non-playoff team the last two seasons. Can the Flames forget about the slumps and learn to embrace consistency?

Offense

Scoring was not an issue in Calgary last season. The Flames were seventh in the NHL in goals scored and had seven players earn 40-plus points. Iginla was again Mr. Everything in Calgary leading the team in points with 86 and scoring 43 goals. Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen will try and show that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan offensively while Rene Bourque is emerging as a force on the left wing. Scrappy winger Curtis Glencross will also look to keep his production rolling along as well.

The Flames will need to get more from the center position and the likes of Brendan Morrison (once he’s healthy) as well as Mikael Backlund and Matthew Stajan. Newly acquired Lee Stempniak should help keep things balanced on the right side and give Calgary a steady 20-plus goal effort.

Defense

Calgary’s top four shape up to be rather decent. Adding Scott Hannan helps give them a steady defensive presence while Mark Giordano is one of the best kept secrets in the NHL when it comes to point production on the blue line. Anton Babchuk gives them a booming shot on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester is just quiet and steady as he goes. Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, and Brett Carson round out the pack that will try to keep things quiet for Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. There’s solid play here, but they need to be stronger defensively.

source: APGoalies

Miikka Kiprusoff had a below-average year for himself last season finishing with a goals against average of 2.63. The Flames, however, hope to give Kiprusoff a bit more rest as he gets older. Last season, Kiprusoff was third in the league in minutes played and his backup Henrik Karlsson has to play stronger and earn coach Brent Sutter’s trust more. How Kiprusoff holds up and plays is key to the Flames’ success. A few more nights off would go a long way towards helping him play at his best.

Coaching

Brent Sutter enters his third season as the Flames’ coach and while the Flames have done all right in earning 90-plus points in both previous seasons, the team has yet to make the playoffs with him at the helm. Should Calgary get off to a slow start like how they did last season, the calls for Sutter to be fired will roar quickly. GM Jay Feaster inherited Sutter as his coach, so don’t expect him to sit and wait around for Sutter to fix things if the losses pile up early. In such a questionably talented division Calgary could bully other teams to win. Failure isn’t an option for Sutter.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

The time is now for Mikael Backlund to prove his worth. At 22 years-old he’s the lone Calgary prospect showing that he can make it in the NHL. After struggling to establish himself as a force last year scoring just 10 goals In 73 games and winding up with just 25 points, if he can break out he’ll provide a huge lift to the Flames offense and make them all the more dangerous there. Earning Sutter’s trust would go a long way to doing that as he averaged just over 12 minutes of ice time per game last season. It’s tough to leave your mark when you’re twiddling your thumbs on the bench.

Best-case scenario

Iginla does the same thing he did last year and dominates play night in and night out and brings all of his linemates along for the ride as well. Getting repeat performances from Jokinen and Tanguay would go a long way to helping that. Seeing continued growth from Bourque and Glencross with another 25-plus goal season would help out too. Giordano and Babchuk make the Flames’ power play one to be feared season-long while Kiprusoff bounces back in a big way to show why he’s one of the better goalies in the league and leads the Flames into the playoffs without much stress.

Reality

Slow starts and poor stretches of play have ruined the last two seasons for the Flames. Avoiding that meddling stretch of play will be key for Calgary as they’ve shown they can keep up with the best in the West, they just haven’t been able to produce that full season of effort to get to the postseason. Iginla’s health (he’s had back spasm issues in training camp) puts the Flames on a dangerous brink. If those issues linger season-long, the Flames are in trouble. Both Iginla and Kiprusoff have to be the All-Stars here to get Calgary back to the playoffs. If their defense can’t hold it together and Kiprusoff has to be beyond brilliant on a nightly basis, the Flames will find their playoff hopes coming down to the final games all over again.

Canucks GM wants Miller back, bringing rebuild into question again

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For one fine trade deadline, it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning saw the light.

They actually moved veterans for assets, and interesting ones in that. They were, gasp, considered one of the winners of the trade deadline. There was the indication that a rebuild might finally be in action. Better late than never, right?

Well … maybe that was just a brief reprieve.

The Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma reports that Benning threw the word “competitive” around when describing why he wants to re-sign 37-year-old Ryan Miller and why he isn’t looking to trade valued defenseman Chris Tanev and declining blueliner Alex Edler.

Sensible if debatable

His reluctance regarding moving the two defensemen is easier to understand. Tanev, 27, is in his prime at a nice cap hit ($4.45 million through 2019-20). A competitive team would want him, and if Benning is convinced the Canucks are close to being just that, then it makes sense.

Edler staying is a little simpler. He has a no-trade clause and doesn’t want to go.

Now, one can argue that Tanev would be best served being moved for high-quality pieces. And perhaps Benning should at least try to convince Edler to accept a trade.

A strange direction in net

But Miller?

“As we’re transitioning these young players into our lineup, I feel that if we have solid goaltending on a night-to-night basis, we can be competitive,” Benning said Thursday, according to Kuzma.

Now, that story discusses why Miller may or may not accept a return, but one would guess that he won’t have a ton of offers. At least not offers that would involve a chance for more “platoon” or even starter-type work rather than explicitly labeling him a backup.

Really, that’s beside the point, because it’s confounding that Vancouver wouldn’t want to go in a younger direction.

You can read that sort of discussion as the Canucks once again wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They seemingly want to “reload” instead of “rebuild.”

Perhaps there’s some smoke-screening going on here. Maybe Benning’s more interested in moving parts than he lets on; it could be that he wants to drive up Tanev’s price by playing coy about moving him.

Still, on their face, the comments don’t exactly inspire confidence for a fan base that must be getting a little irritated by management that, to many, seems delusional about this team’s potential.

Penguins’ Sullivan believes resiliency is ‘strength of this team’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.

On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.

A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.

This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.

So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.

“Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim,” Crosby said. “We’ve just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We’ve done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength.”

And they’ll have to do it one more time in the final against swaggering Nashville if they want to become the first team in nearly 20 years and the first in salary-cap era to win back-to-back championships.

It’s a daunting task. When the puck drops in Game 1 on Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be playing in their 108th game in the last calendar year, and that doesn’t count another half dozen for those who played in the World Cup of Hockey and a handful of exhibition games.

Pittsburgh, however, has survived to do something even Chicago and Los Angeles – who have combined for five of the seven Cups awarded since 2010 – could not in putting itself in positon for a repeat.

Credit coach Mike Sullivan’s ever-prescient tinkering with the lineups, including his decision to throw Kunitz back into the fray with Crosby as Game 7 wore on, an experiment that ended with Crosby feeding Kunitz for the winner 5:09 into the second overtime .

Credit goaltender Matt Murray, thrust back into the lineup when Marc-Andre Fleury‘s hot play that helped carry the Penguins through the opening two rounds finally cooled.

Credit a maturity – or maybe it’s wisdom – from the team leaders who watched the first half of the decade come and go with plenty of gaudy regular-season numbers but no Cup banners to join the one they captured in 2009.

Pinning down what changed is difficult. General manager Jim Rutherford’s ability to remake the team on the fly to build one of the fastest lineups in the league helped. So did Sullivan’s ability to cut through the noise when he replaced the professorial Mike Johnston in December 2015.

Yet the Penguins understand there’s something else at work too, a resiliency and accountability they lacked while falling to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14.

“I believe that the resolve and the resilience of this team is the strength of this team,” Sullivan said.

Both were on full display in Game 7.

Kunitz, who missed the first-round series against Columbus with a lower-body injury, returned to see himself bumped from the first line to the fourth, scored his first two goals of the playoffs. Conor Sheary, a blurring revelation last spring who suddenly found himself a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 against the Senators, returned to set up Kunitz’s first goal .

Justin Schultz, who has assumed the as the minute-hogging, puck-moving defenseman role held by the injured Kris Letang, returned from his own health scare and scored a go-ahead goal in the third period.

If the Penguins were a force of nature last spring while earning the franchise’s fourth Cup, this one is more of a throwback. More blue collar. More anonymous.

Some of the key cogs that helped Pittsburgh get to this point – rookie forward Jake Guentzel, 37-year-old playoff newcomer Ron Hainsey and career grinder Scott Wilson – weren’t even around last spring. Yet they and so many others not named Crosby or Malkin have become equal partners in pursuit of a title.

“This year it’s been back and forth, it’s been tough,” Kunitz said. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night.”

It hasn’t been pretty. So what? Perhaps the biggest sign of the team’s growth is it has abandoned the pursuit of style points for something far more tangible. Like a 34-pound piece of hardware, one Pittsburgh has no intention of handing off anytime soon.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Breaking: Predators’ Laviolette has not tried Nashville’s ‘hot chicken’ yet

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Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette dropped a bombshell on “The Dan Patrick Show.” Some of us are still reeling from the revelation.

It turns out that Laviolette hasn’t tried “hot chicken” yet.

Laviolette explained that, if he had the “bird that bites back” before a game, he’d be on fire behind the bench. Sadly, Dan Patrick let him off the hook and didn’t ask “Well, what about off days, Lavi?”

(They might not be on a lazy hockey nickname basis yet, though, to be fair.)

All kidding aside, Laviolette provided more insight on the Predators’ Stanley Cup Final run – and not a lot more hot chicken hot takes – in the longer interview below.

Note: This post’s author may or may not have gone a year in Nashville without trying hot chicken either. Hey, Laviolette’s been there for three seasons now. Way worse.

‘Making Gretzky’s head bleed’ wasn’t so easy for ‘Swingers’ filmmaker

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Remember that classic (and very NSFW) video game hockey scene from “Swingers?” The one where Vince Vaughn espouses the virtues of Jeremy Roenick? It was pretty great, right?

There was something so organic about two friends getting up to video-game shenanigans (and discussing which 16-bit era game featured the best pixelated violence), but apparently it was easier to set the scene that it was to “make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed.”

The Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast caught up with Doug Liman (pictured with Jon Favreau in this post’s main image) for some hysterical background information on getting that highly amusing scene right.

“I had never actually seen Wayne Gretzky draw blood, but Vince [Vaughn] claimed he could do it repeatedly, so we put it in the script,” Liman said. “The actors are reacting to that. And then we’re editing the movie and I bring the [game console] into the editing room and we start playing it and we’re recording it onto a videotape so that when we get the one piece we need we’ll play that back on the TV and shoot it. [We do this] for, like, weeks. Nobody can draw blood. And I’m like [to] Nintendo, ‘Hey, can you give us the backdoor key to doing this?’ It wasn’t like we were having fun playing the game, because all we would do was pass the puck down and set it up for Gretzky to get the puck and then we would, you know, try to slam him into the boards.”

Like a rare athletic feat, they got it right, but don’t ask Liman to pull it off on a whim. Liman sure made it seem like they were lucky to ever commit that moment to film.

Liman explained that it was “infuriatingly fleeting” and not the sort of video game trick that you could make work over and over again once you learned the right combination of button presses.

This is some really funny, fantastic background information on the movie that launched the careers of Favreau and Vaughn. It also helped remind us of that golden 16-bit era of EA NHL games, whether you preferred NHL ’94, ’95, or ’96. (And so on.)

Liman also shares a very amusing story about how hockey video game skills don’t exactly translate to the real sport, so check out the transcript and the full podcast for more.

And, if you’re playing a modern game like NHL ’17, don’t pick on “Super Fan 87.” Be nice to your friends. That’s the money move.

Here’s the scene itself. Again, a warning: there is strong language and 16-bit “gore.”