- George Johnson, NHL
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CALGARY, Alberta -- As one of the longest-serving sufferers, Denis Gauthier has been a witness to more than his share of misery.
"There's been a lot of pain around here,'' murmurs the 27-year defenseman. "Too many broken hearts.
"Gawd, it's been tough. I truly believed we had a lot of character people in this room over the years and I never, ever felt that we weren't capable of making the playoffs. But for some reason we just ... didn't get it done.
"This team has a stronger foundation. There's a real sense of confidence, of belief, in what we're doing.
"We feel that, finally, this is going to be our year.''
Pretty words. Inspirational words. But it's been seven drawn-out years since the Calgary Flames as much as qualified for the postseason (the longest current streak in the NHL), and 13 (or the last time -- the only time -- they won a Stanley Cup) since they copped a series.
Since then misery has piled on top of heartache on top of woe.
No one expected much of anything from them this season, either. On paper, they appeared thin up front, lacking punch at the back and saddled with a goaltender who seemed destined to star in his own coming-of-age flick, "Tank It Like Turek."
Well, what gives, anyway?
As of midweek, Calgary had pieced together a 14-9-1-3 record, good for sixth spot in the Western Conference, shocking everyone, including, most likely, themselves. They must be considered, without question, one of the surprise items of early in the year.
A stellar stretch of 10 games with at least one point just ended Tuesday at the Xcel Energy Center.
"The most encouraging thing about that loss was the way the guys reacted to it,'' points out Gauthier. "They were p---ed off. Nobody sat around here patting themselves on the back for the 10 games. They were upset by the last one. And that's the way you've got to think in this league.''
The Flames are playing inspired defensively (currently ranked seventh in goaltending, despite having their No. 1 out for an extended period of time), without falling into the trap-happy tactics of, say, the Minnesota Wild. They may not score much, but they give up even less. Only the notoriously miserly New Jersey Devils have allowed fewer shots per game than Calgary's 22.7.
Coach/GM Darryl Sutter has in his year at the helm changed a monotonously gritty group into a faster, better-skating team that feasts on forechecking turnovers. Outside of Jarome Iginla, there are no star names on the lineup sheet, but this team, unlike many Flames clubs in the past, has been able to establish an identity and stick with it. As he did, Sutter has pruned, weeded out and redefined. So far, the tinkering has paid off.
"The biggest thing is that this coaching staff has put a system in place that the players here believe can carry them through any game,'' says special assistant to the GM Al MacNeil. " It's a system that appeals to the whole room; a system that makes sure everyone contributes, everyone has a part in it. And that's vital. It's like a safety net. Getting everyone buying into the system is a lot of the battle.
"It's a credit to Darryl. The whole is more important than the parts. When we lost Roman Turek, I thought 'Oh, ohhhh.' You could see a pallor settle around this place. It was deja vu all over again, so to speak. But then they began to realize that if they played the way they were told, the way they'd been taught, they could still be successful. You could almost see a light go on.
"The only thought around here is to make the playoffs. That's the sole focus. There's a different feeling than in other years, a belief, that this team can attain that goal.''
That remains to be seen, of course. The Flames have done this before, of course, put together a spirited run, an encouraging streak, only to see all the effort, all the sweat, all the hope, totter and crumble. So no one is planning a parade, the ticker-tape remains stored away and talk of the P word is restricted to only quiet, private conversations, as if uttering it aloud might end the spell, jinx the moment, ruin the magic.
Once fooled, shame on you. Twice fooled, shame on us. Seven times fooled ... well, don't even go there.
Still, even the most hardened skeptic has to be admit there's more NHL-caliber (although not high-end) depth now. Shean Donovan, an old Sutter campaigner in San Jose, has been a revelation. He'd never scored more than 13 goals in a season before. Already, he's hit for 11. And in doing so, has helped add vital balance to Calgary scoring. As has a rejuvenated Martin Gelinas. Jarome Iginla's unit is not to lug the weight of the franchise around on its own anymore.
So even when three centers -- Steve Reinprecht, Blair Betts and Craig Conroy -- went down to injury in short order, and even when Iginla struggled to find his range earlier in the season, the Flames still managed to tread water.
"Our third and fourth lines are a big, big difference,'' says Gauthier. "There's more skill there now than at any time since I've been here. Good intentions are wonderful. But there's a huge difference in wanting to do something and being able to do it.''
They've addressed the need of establishing a better home record -- Calgary is 10-4-1-1 at the Pengrowth Saddledome this season. The addition of Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has helped fill the void created by Turek's absence. And although it might seem a small detail, the offseason signing of enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa has provided the sort of ready muscle that keeps the opposition honest over an 82-game schedule. Already, the Polish Hammer has made his mark, setting the tone on many nights, and leads the league in fighting majors.
"We haven't had a guy who can lose a marble at any moment, a legit heavyweight, in a while,'' says Gauthier. "Someone who can mix it up with the Laraques and the Domis and the Johnsons. It's different. It's ...''
He smiles broadly.
"For a long time we relied on team toughness. But we were lacking that one guy. And other teams usually had that type of guy sitting on their bench, ready to lose a nut at the drop of a hat. And it was kind of like 'When's he gonna lose it?' And 'Who's gonna handle it?'
"Now we've got a guy who'll handle it.''
But can the Flames handle it? The prosperity, that is. One-third of a season isn't enough to convince anyone that they're for real. As Gauthier said before, there's been a lot of pain, too many broken hearts, for Calgarians to go all ga-ga over this unexpectedly delightful start. Optimism exists. But skepticism has taken such a firm hold over the past seven fruitless seasons.
"We understand,'' says defenseman Robyn Regehr, "that Calgary fans need a lot of convincing."
A lot MORE convincing, actually. And if the Flames are having trouble with that, well, sorry, but there's only themselves to blame.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
9dScott Burnside and Craig Custance