- George Johnson, NHL
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It is Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2005, and apparently all is well once more in Calgary, Alberta. The price per barrel of oil remains high. The population is pushing a million. The city and provincial surpluses are the envy of the country.
Things are going so well that king Ralph Klein, the jowly premier, has promised almost every person -- man, woman and child -- a $400 prosperity check in the new year, with the hint of more on the way.
Only a day before, though, on the front sports page of the Calgary Herald, after the Flames had limped home from a 1-4 road swing that had seen them plummet three games under .500 and settle ignominiously on the bottom of the Northwest Division, the mood had been somewhat less euphoric.
A red PANIC button. And underneath, a nervously optimistic: Not So Fast!
They can only hope.
When preseason prognosticators trotted out the inevitable rankings, an astonishing number actually picked the Flames as Stanley Cup favorites. Not as outside threats. Or viable contenders, even. But flat-out favorites. The team to beat.
The usual, easy thing is invariably to stick with what's fresh in your mind. And the Flames, for their admirable grit, the unending bacchanalia down The Red Mile, and that astounding run all the way into early June, were the overriding image everyone carried from the last time hockey actually was being played in the NHL.
"That was two years ago," coach/GM Darryl Sutter snorted. "Might as well be a hundred."
He's bang-on there. This is a new season, a new game and a remodeled team.
It never figured to be a cakewalk to the Cup. Still, after such a big buildup, what in tarnation has been wrong with these Flames, anyway? Well, now that you mention it ...
1) Reality Check
Those two unforgettable months in 2004 -- mid-April to June 7 -- remain seared in people's consciousness. But were they merely an aberration?
Hey, it has happened before. What has been forgotten in all the mythologizing of the unforgettable playoff run is that this team didn't even qualify for the postseason until Game 80, and required MVP-caliber seasons from Iginla and Kiprusoff to barely squeeze in.
Didn't anyone remember that the Mighty Ducks, those very same oops-missed-the-playoffs-again Flighty Ducks, also had come one win from a Cup championship the springtime before? Apparently not. And Calgary was a franchise, never forget, that hadn't had as much as a sniff at late springtime hockey in seven long, depressing seasons.
Sorry, but two months of being sprinkled with playoff pixie dust doesn't turn any team into the mid-'80s Oilers or late '70s Islanders.
2) The Kipper Effect
Quietly, the silent Finn strung together one of the finest goaltending seasons in recent memory before the lockout. A league-leading 1.69 goals-against average and a joint-leading .933 save percentage. He was so good, so composed, so in-the-moment, it was almost spooky. That's a daunting act to follow, and he hasn't, at least not so far (Kiprusoff has a 2.56 GAA). There hasn't been the same sense of assuredness, of unbeatability, in his play so far.
3) Slow-starting Iginla
Historically, the captain/centerpiece/messiah gets out of the starting blocks like Jabba the Hutt in a potato sack race. And this year -- particularly given the year away because of the lockout, when he opted not to go overseas and stay sharp -- has been no exception. There are indications that he's beginning to find his rhythm again, but so far, the passion, the drive, the indomitable will that pushed a franchise to the brink of glory in 2004 has appeared only in sporadic bursts.
4) The New NHL
So much of the game now, with the queue to the penalty box so long it resembles the line for Rolling Stones tickets, is special teams. For a while there, both Calgary's power play and its penalty killing were ranked 30th. The Flames have nudged both up slightly, the PP to 27th and the PK to 26th, but unless those placings continue to climb, the team's position in the standings won't, either.
Also, the Flames thrived on the old playoff style. Clutching, interfering, dirty work down low. All of that's gone now with the game free of its shackles. It has opened up, and the focus is on speed and skill. Teams such as Detroit and Ottawa aren't having trouble making the adjustment. But the Flames are.
It's one thing to be the lovable, overachieving underdogs, where everything you accomplish is a bonus and people want to wrap their arms around you and squeeze. It's quite another to be considered Stanley Cup worthy. To see as much in magazines, hear it on TV, listen to it all over town. This organization hasn't been cast in this sort of soft, reverent light for more than a decade. It's taking some getting used to.
6) Chemistry Lesson 101
Everyone prattles on ad nauseam about the old hands Calgary has added to push it over the top: Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Roman Hamrlik, Daymond Langkow. No one mentions those who are gone. Martin Gelinas' contribution in the playoffs only turned him into a local folk icon. Craig Conroy always made Iginla better. Denis Gauthier, Chris Clark, Toni Lydman. Good people. Solid pros. A lot of the chatter, and much of the personality, of that dressing room is gone now.
So much of what the Flames accomplished could be chalked up to amazing team chemistry. That chemistry has been tinkered with, as Sutter tries to mould this franchise in his image. Its speedy restoration, if it can be restored, is vital to getting the train back on the rails.
7) The Schedule
San Jose was the only other team in the league to play nine road games in October. The Flames struggled, going 2-7. What's unsettling about that is that this club was superb away from the Saddledome in 2003-04, finishing 21-6-2-2. The road record is what kicked the Flames into the playoffs in the first place.
Still, a more accurate read will be available in a month's time. Calgary plays nine more games at the 'Dome between now and Dec. 1.
Those predicting doom now are the same knee-jerk reactionaries who were all-too-eager at the beginning of October to plan the coronation. Please, people, a little perspective.
Iginla will regain his form. That's not at issue. Kiprusoff, though perhaps not reproducing the utter brilliance that made him arguably the best at his position in 2003-04, still can be counted on to be a top goaltender in this league. Injured Robyn Regehr is expected back shortly. Rookie defenseman Dion Phaneuf might not be receiving Crosby- or Ovechkin-like rookie raves around the loop, but -- at a harder position to master quickly -- he has been phenomenally solid.
The Flames are a good team. But there are a lot of good, similar teams in the new "My NHL." They'll undoubtedly be involved in what promises to be a heated Western playoff debate right until the end. If they get in, they could cause some noise again.
Banking on anything more is just wishful thinking. Always was.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
After many touted the Flames as this season's Stanley Cup favorites, Calgary is off to a sluggish start.