Lighting The Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
The visiting team with the flaming "C" on their jerseys finished 13th in the West last season, 13 points out of the playoffs. The Hockey News and many other self-styled experts picked them to finish dead last in the conference this season. However, the Blues will not take them lightly tonight as Cal-gary is riding a high-octane offense towards respectability so far this season, showing it by defeating the Blackhawks in Chicago just last Sunday behind the stellar play of rookie goaltender Reto Berra, first drafted by the Blues in the fourth round, 106th overall, of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Pundits chortled with amusement when the relatively unknown 26 year old Swiss native was included in the deal with the Blues for defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, along with defenseman Mark Cundari and a first round draft choice, highly touted winger Emile Poirier. Berra stopped 42 of 44 shots against the mighty Hawks and easily proved, at least for now, that Flames GM Jay Feaster knew what he was doing when he made that trade.
Calgary is averaging almost three goals a game, led by veteran center Jiri Hudler (team-leading 10 assists, 15 points), rookie center Sean Monahan (club-high seven goals and 11 points) and winger Mike Cammalleri (7 points in 7 games). Lee Stempniak, a former Blue currently down with a broken foot, has also contributed at almost a point a game level. A decent transition game has been established by defensemen Dennis Wideman, who wore the Bluenote for two seasons (9 assists), injured Mark Giordano (7 assists in 8 games), and yet another former Blue, Kris Russell (6 assists), who scored the overtime game-winner against Chicago. Calgary's biggest problem is a porous team defense, ranked second to last in the league, giving up almost three and a half goals per game. Neither goaltender Joey MacDonald nor Karri Ramo has provided much help, both with goals against averages over three and poor save percentages. If Berra is indeed the real deal, then the Flames might be able to stay ahead of the hapless Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Conference.
The Flames franchise entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1972. Of course, the club started in Georgia, joining the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, who had previously been purchased and relocated from St. Louis in 1968 by owner Tom Cousins. The Flames made the playoffs six times in eight seasons in Atlanta, yet only won two postseason games during that time. Poor attendance, rising operating costs and the lack of a television contract, along with other failed business ventures by Cousins led to his potential bankruptcy, forcing the sale of the franchise in 1980 to Calgary, where Canadian entrepreneur Nelson Skalbania fronted a group of local businessmen, who paid a then-record sale price of US$16M for the franchise.
The city of Calgary immediately embraced their new hockey team. The 7,000 seat Stampede Corral filled to capacity every night as over 10,000 full-and half-season ticket packages were sold. Led by center Kent Nilsson's 49 goals and 131 points, the Calgary Flames qualified for the playoffs and won the first two postseason series over Chicago and Philadelphia before bowing out to the Minnesota North Stars. Longtime General Manager Cliff Fletcher, a former scout and assistant GM with the Blues, assembled a strong club over the next decade, winning two Smythe Division titles, two Western Conference championships, two President's Trophies, and one Stanley Cup. Fletcher had the foresight to add many U.S. college players, including Gary Suter and Mike Eaves (Wisconsin), Joel Otto (Bemidji St.), Neil Sheehy (Harvard), Charlie Bourgeois (U. of Moncton), Carey Wilson (Dartmouth), Brett Hull (U. of Minn.-Duluth) and Gino Cavallini (Bowling Green). Fletcher was also one of the first NHL general managers to draft European/Russian talent, including Swedish star Hakan Loob and Finnish defenseman Kari Eloranta, as well as Russian sniper Sergei Makarov. Fletcher also made excellent use of the amateur draft, choosing players such as goaltender Mike Vernon, defensemen Al MacInnis and Paul Reinhart, and forwards Dan Quinn, Jim Peplinski, Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk and Theoren Fleury. Trades brought in stars including Lanny McDonald, Doug Risebrough, Doug Gilmour, Joe Mullen, Rob Ramage and Rick Wamsley.
Ultimate success finally came in 1989 when the Flames won the President's Trophy with a franchise record 117 points, followed by division and conference championships. Vancouver, Los Angeles and Chicago all fell to Calgary in the playoffs, leading to a Finals series against Patrick Roy and powerful Montreal. The Flames won the series in six games, defeating the Canadiens at the Forum, the only time in NHL history an opposing team won the Cup on Montreal's home ice. Al Macinnis won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player, the first defenseman to lead the NHL in postseason scoring with 31 points. On a side note, Flames' co-owner Sonia Scurfield became the first (and to date, only) Canadian woman to have her name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
St. Louis is Cal-gary's third stop on a four game road trip in a week, so it behooves the Blues to come out fast and hard, hitting bodies, keeping the puck in the offensive zone and putting shots on net in order to wear down the Flames defense and build an early lead. A good start to this five game home-stand will help ease the strain of playing a game an average of every two days the rest of the month into December.