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Calgary Flames on the upswing after a rough start to NHL season

CALGARY — The Calgary Flames are trending upwards after a terrible start.

Just past the quarter pole of the NHL's regular season, the Flames went from a 2-6-1 October to 7-4-2 with a game remaining in November. 

Calgary (9-10-3) is at home Thursday for a rematch with the Dallas Stars less than a week after scoring four third-period goals for a 7-4 win in Texas. 

The Flames have begun flirting with a Western Conference wild-card playoff spot almost month after a six-game losing skid.

"When you look at our game in October, there was a lot of, I don't necessarily want to call it individual play, but we made a lot of mistakes with the puck and that caused us a lot of problems," head coach Ryan Huska said Wednesday.

"Because we weren't really connected yet with how we wanted to play, they were glaring mistakes that often either ended up in our net, or led to a lot of momentum coming the other way. 

"We've been able to flip that a little bit over the last little while. We're much more connected, so if there is a breakdown, we have people where they should be."

The Flames promoted Huska to head coach in June to replace fired Darryl Sutter after Huska's five seasons as an assistant. New assistants Dan Lambert and Marc Savard joined Cail MacLean on Huska's staff.

If an adjustment period was needed under the new coaching configuration, the Flames hope they've now checked that box.

"I felt we were going to have a better start than we had, but you're going to have to go through those times too," said captain Mikael Backlund. "No one wants to go on a losing streak. When you do and you come out of it, you should become stronger as a group.

"All guys feel more comfortable on the ice and with the new system that we changed a bit in the defensive zone, I feel guys are picking up more and more too here in November. We also realize as group that when we play the way we can, we're really good team."

No one Flame is lighting up the scoreboard. No one is close to averaging a point per game due largely to an ineffective power-play operating at 11.3 per cent and on a 1-for-29 cold spell heading into Thursday.

"It's glaring and we have to get to a point where, it's not going to score all the time, but it's got to generate you some positive momentum," Huska said. 

There was also considerable experimentation with forward line combinations in Calgary's first quarter with the off-season trade of leading goal scorer Tyler Toffoli to New Jersey for Yegor Sharangovich, as well as the incorporation of forwards Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil, who started the season with the AHL's Wranglers.

Blake Coleman's six goals and Elias Lindholm's 15 points topped Calgary's offence heading into Thursday's tilt with the Stars.

"I think we're starting to see more chemistry, more depth in the lineup," winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. "It takes time, the identity of the team.

"You're always wanting to be a team that scores a lot of goals and has leads, but we're going to be a team (where) it's going to be tight most of the games and we've got to be comfortable with that."

A team that left 17 points on the table last season in shootout and overtime losses continued that trend by losing its first three shootouts this season. 

A pair of recent overtime wins — including Monday's 2-1 decision over the visiting Vegas Golden Knights — helped restore some confidence in the team's chances beyond regulation time.

The Flames eked at least a point out games they trailed in after 40 minutes in six of their last 11 games.

"You want to play with the lead more, so we'd like to flip that script a little bit and hold on to leads, but I think they do have a belief in how we're trying to play the game a little bit now," Huska said. 

"They're never out of it and they realize that so they keep pushing and that's important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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