There was no more contentious ranking in my preseason NHL Power Rankings than the placement of the Calgary Flames at 17th.
For the countless e-mailers who questioned my sanity (among other things), I continually told them that I couldn't see where the Flames would make up for the 54 goals they lost in Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi's departures and that if the goaltending continued on its steady downward trend, a middle-of-the-pack ranking wasn't a reach for the Flames.
Now more than a third of the way through the season, it appears there was little reason to worry about either of those factors.
For starters, the Flames were 8th in the NHL last year with 3.06 goals per game. This year, they're 8th with 3.00 goals per game. Jarome Iginla's 50-goal pace hasn't hurt, nor has a point-per-game from Rene Bourque, but the Flames have primarily done it with a balanced attack -- with nine players contributing more than five goals and Iginla, with 17, the only one with more than Daymond Langkow's nine.
Improving the power play from last season's 21st-ranked unit, which scored 17.0% of the time, to 16th and scoring 19.8% of the time this year helps, but is hardly earth-shattering improvement.
Strangely enough, the Flames have maintained their offensive success despite ranking 29th in the league in shots on goal, with 27.4 shots per game; down from last season's 32.2 shots per game, which ranked eighth.
It's the shots on goal that make for an interesting comparison between this year's Flames and last year's version.
This year, despite adding Jay Bouwmeester in an effort to stabilize the defence corps, the Flames rank 20th in the league, allowing 30.8 shots on goal per game. Last year, the Flames were in the middle of the pack, allowing 29.8 shots against per game.
Now, that one shot per game isn't much of a difference, so how do we account for the Flames allowing 2.39 goals against per game this year, compared to last year, when they surrendered 3.00 per game (ranked 23rd).
For one thing, the Flames have been more disciplined, averaging 3.89 times shorthanded per game this year, compared to 4.26 times per game last season. Fewer times shorthanded should also mean fewer quality shots against, so that does help explain the Flames' improved defensive record despite allowing more shots against. But that explanation doesn't do justice to why the Flames are really better than I expected.
That leaves us with the last line of defence, primarily Miikka Kiprusoff, seeing as he's started 25 of 28 Flames games thus far.
When the Flames acquired Kiprusoff from San Jose in 2003-2004, he was immediately a dominant puckstopper, posting a 1.70 goals against average and .933 save percentage in 38 games. While it would have been unreasonable to expect Kiprusoff to maintain that outrageous pace year-in and year-out, it was notable that his numbers declined steadily every season until he finished last season with a 2.84 goals against average and .903 save percentage.
This year, however, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the 33-year-old's performance, as he has a 2.21 goals against average and .927 save percentage.
Considering Kiprusoff has faced 756 shots on goal so far this season, if he was still stopping pucks at a .903 clip, he would have allowed approximately 18 more goals than the 55 he's let in so far this season, which would lift his goals against average to 2.94.
That's a major impact to a Flames team that has scored 17 more goals than their opposition this season and it's why I view Miikka Kiprusoff as making the primary difference for the Flames this season.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca