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Red-hot Flames back in the playoff race

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FIRST PERIOD

They're alive, and so they feel alive. Even though the Calgary Flames rank 12th in the Western Conference, they have won six consecutive games and sit only two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.

They don't dread coming to the rink. They don't sit in silence in the dressing room. They aren't afraid to smile.

"It's funny how it goes sometimes," veteran center Brendan Morrison(notes) said over the phone from Atlanta, where the Flames were set to face the Thrashers on Thursday night. "When you're winning, the music in the locker room is louder. There's a little bit more practical joking going on. Little things like that you just seem to notice."

Little of that was going on during the first half of the season. After a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 21, the Flames were 14-18-3. As Morrison said, "A lot of people had written us off."

The Flames have gone 11-3-3 since. That lines up almost perfectly with the Dec. 28 resignation of perpetually dour Darryl Sutter as general manager and the promotion of ever-upbeat Jay Feaster to acting GM. But Morrison called that a coincidence.

"It's easy to point to that and say, 'Hey, look, ever since Darryl was removed and Jay was put in place, these guys have started to win,' " Morrison said. "But we were playing better hockey before that change took place.

"Have things changed a bit in the room? Well, they have. But now, is that directly related to that change or is it related to us winning games? I would have to say it's more related to winning games. When you're winning, guys are having more fun, they have more energy at the rink and it's contagious."

If the Flames keep it up, they could be a buyer instead of a seller at the Feb. 28 trade deadline and help make this one of the most competitive playoff races in memory.

Feaster values draft picks, because the Flames already don't have a second- or third-rounder this year. He won't ship out core players like Jarome Iginla(notes), Miikka Kiprusoff(notes), Robyn Regehr(notes), Jay Bouwmeester(notes) and Mark Giordano(notes). But he could make a move if he feels it could help now.

Making the playoffs is still going to be tough. The Flames must leapfrog four other teams to land a playoff spot, and they lead the league with seven shootout victories, which no longer count when victories are used as the first tiebreaker in the standings. But at least they're back in the race.

"I really do like our mindset the last couple weeks," said Morrison, who has three goals and six points during the team’s five-game winning streak. "Let's not worry so much about the other guys. Let's just worry about ourselves. If we go out and take care of our business, then we're going to give ourselves a chance.

"We realize we still have a long ways to go, a lot of work ahead of us here, but we feel good about our game right now. It's a challenge that we're looking forward to."

SECOND PERIOD

Could the success of HBO's all-access reality series on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals not only lead to another "24/7" on hockey, but similar behind-the-scenes content on the NHL Network?

NHL chief operating officer John Collins said league officials spoke to the board of governors about it during all-star weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

"I think we've seen there's a rich vein in terms of interest and potential – possibilities in terms of letting fans get to see just what kind of guys these players are," Collins said.

Collins began his career in pro sports with NFL Films and helped introduce HBO's "Hard Knocks" and "Inside the NFL," and he noted that "nobody had a bigger hand in shaping the image and the brand of the NFL than NFL Films." He envisions the NHL's own media arm creating the mythology of hockey in much the same way someday.

He said when NHL executives do research, they find that fans expect league-owned media to provide access better than a third party can, even if they won't do the same kind of reporting a third party would (or air the profanity HBO did).

"I think that you understand that you're not going to try to be TMZ," Collins said. "You're not there necessarily to make the news. You are there to sort of … provide an accurate portrayal."

The league has hired Charles Coplin as executive vice-president of content and Mark Preisler as executive producer of NHL Network. Coplin came from the NFL, Preisler from ESPN. For now, the first priority is solidifying core programming that sets up and recaps the daily action on the ice.

"Once we do that really well, with the right talent and everything else across all of our platforms, then I think there's an opportunity to do a lot more – really start to do documentaries, start to deliver on the access, take ‘24/7’ and start to do that kind of thing," Collins said.

"I think we're beginning to implement the plan. A lot of it is driven by budgets and what we can do. We have a really big appetite for all this stuff. But we're getting to it. I think you can see we're pretty aggressive about doing new things and trying new stuff. There's no reason not to."

THIRD PERIOD

So what's next for Brendan Shanahan(notes)?

"That's an interesting question," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He and I discuss it on a regular basis."

Shanahan, the league's vice-president of hockey and business development, just overhauled the format for the All-Star Game. It was his idea to have the players pick the captains and the captains pick the teams in the Fantasy Draft, and that idea not only created a new TV show that averaged more than 2 million viewers, it helped generate higher revenue for the weekend and better TV ratings for the game itself.

Not bad at a time when the NHL is working on a new TV contract.

Is he after Bettman's job or something?

"You'll have to ask him that," Bettman said, smiling. "Except there may be a long line. I think (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly would be in that line, too."

Shanahan did not respond to an interview request Thursday. But he is a hot executive with all kinds of options, including taking over a team or expanding his involvement with the league.

Toward the end of a 21-year playing career that will put him in the Hall of Fame, he held the "Shanahan Summit" in December of 2004, when a group of hockey minds brainstormed ideas that led to rule changes to open up the game after the '04-05 lockout.

He joined the league in December of 2009 to learn the business side and give hockey operations the perspective of someone who played under the new rules. The NHL has now hired former star defenseman Rob Blake(notes), too.

Director of hockey operations Colin Campbell recounted a conversation with fellow NHL exec Mike Murphy(notes). "He said, 'It's been a long time since we played,' " Campbell said. "I said, 'Long time since we played, Murph? It's been a long time since we coached.' So we need some fresh blood. It's been good. The players can relate to these guys, too. They can sell whatever they're doing better than I could."

Bettman tasked Shanahan with running the Research, Development and Orientation Camp in August, not only so the league could test ideas to improve the on-ice product, but to give Shanahan experience in pulling together an event. That helped Shanahan pull together the new all-star format.

"This was another case of having a project," Bettman said. "This one he came up with as opposed to me telling him what to do and saying, 'OK, how do I make it happen?' … He's learning about the other side of the game from what he spent 21 years doing, and he'll be the first to tell you he's learning as he goes. But part of the learning experience, as I've envisioned it for him is, he gets things to do."

OVERTIME

The All-Star Game stayed tight after Team Lidstrom rallied from an early 4-0 deficit, with the score 4-4 after one period, 7-6 after two and 11-10 after three. But beforehand, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland shared an idea with Shanahan, one of his former players, to keep the game from becoming a boring blowout in the future.

Forget goal totals. Divide the game into three mini-games. The winner of the first period receives one point, the winner of the second two points, the winner of the third three points, no matter how lopsided the score within each period. (If the teams tie in the first or third period, a point could be split into halves.)

"So, ultimately, if Team A wins Period 1 and Period 2, they've got three points," Holland said. "And if Team B wins Period 3, they've each got three points. Now we go to sudden-death overtime."

Holland said it was just an idea, one he wasn't sure was good or bad. He conceded it was another gimmick. But like Shanahan did with the Fantasy Draft, Holland was trying to think of an outside-the-box but realistic way to keep fans and players engaged at a high-scoring, low-intensity event.

"You want to make the All-Star Game interesting," Holland said. "It's not going to be physical. People are dreaming if they're going to figure out a way to make it physical. Players aren't going to play physical in an All-Star Game out of respect. They don't want to get hurt, and they don't want to hurt somebody else. But how do you keep the score close?"

SHOOTOUT

• Toronto general manager Brian Burke wasn't the only one who didn't appreciate Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel(notes) sitting by himself at the end of the Fantasy Draft. "You'd like to make a few alterations to the process," Campbell said. "You don't really want one player going last. If I were a player, I would love to go last, but I don't think these guys with their status … It's just a little bit tough."

• Wonder how TV execs feel about that, though. Didn't ratings spike at the end of the draft? The drama over who would be the last pick interested people as much or more than who would be the first pick.

• Campbell on concussions: "The NFL might not like me saying this, but I don't think we have close to the problem they have. They have big, fast people. They have plays where they tackle people with their bodies. Our challenge, I think, is a little bit easier than football's challenge, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong (in the NFL). I'm saying their challenge is more difficult. It's the nature of the game."

• Interesting that Campbell wasn't the only one with that take coming out of the board of governors meeting. Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, a longtime sponsor of youth hockey, was asked if he thought parents would be reluctant to put their kids into hockey because of concussions. "I wouldn't let my kids play football," he said. "It is full of concussions and rips knees apart. Ice hockey, I think, we’re getting … not necessarily an increase in concussions, but more of an awareness when someone has the symptoms. We're doing our best to make sure that hits to the head and stuff like that is left out of the pro game. I had three boys play hockey from the time they were kids through college, and they all survived that without a bad knee and without a concussion."

• As 37-year-old Peter Forsberg practices with the Colorado Avalanche and mulls returning to the NHL, 20-year-old Av Matt Duchene(notes) has been watching closely. One of Duchene's favorite moves is carrying the puck around the net with one hand on his stick and the other hand shielding it – something he grew up watching Forsberg do. "He did it the other day in practice, and I was like, 'Oh, yeah, that's where I learned that,' " Duchene said. "I really modeled the way I play after him."

• Happy birthday to Mark Recchi(notes), who turned 43 on Tuesday and has 33 points for the Boston Bruins, tied for third on the team. "I've been feeling good, and health-wise – knock on wood – it's been really good," said Recchi, who has played all 51 of the Bruins' games this season. He said he would play as long as he could train and get in good enough shape, but he's not going pull a Chris Chelios(notes) and play until he's 48. "There's going to be a time and point where it's going to be, 'Enough is enough,' " he said. "I'm not going after Cheli, put it that way."

• @cotsonika tweet of the week: "If you want intense, meaningful all-star games, go to the Olympics. Please, NHL, keep going to the Olympics."

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