- George Johnson, NHL
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CALGARY, Alberta -- In the tomb that passed for the Flames' dressing room late Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, the shots the Detroit Red Wings had administered to Calgary's psyche were taking a back seat to the uppercuts Jarome Iginla had directed at Derian Hatcher with the game lost and the visitors being totally outclassed.
"He fought a big guy, a real big man,'' said teammate Shean Donovan. "He stood in there and didn't back down at all. That's why I think he's the best player in the world.''
Iginla doesn't have to be the best player in the world. He just has to be the best player in this series (campaign workers for Miikka Kiprusoff dissenting).
And that hasn't happened. Yet.
Iginla's fistic challenge to the condominium-sized Hatcher ignited debate from coast-to-coast in Canada. Don Cherry, CBC's populist Mouth That Roared, spewed on about the captain's foolishness for risking injury to his throwing hand. Others interpreted the outburst as an act of defiance, a message that
neither he, nor his team, will kowtow to the might of the star-studded, President's Trophy-winning, Stanley Cup-worthy Red Wings.
Pre-series, most everyone figured that despite the presence of Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, among others, the spotlight would be trained on Iginla. But for very different reasons than have so far transpired.
"He might be a little frustrated,'' conceded the Calgary captain's series shadow, Kirk Maltby, on the eve of Game 3. "But if anything, he'll be going even harder now.
"I think the scrap he had against Hatch wasn't so much out of frustration as the score, the time of the game and him saying, you know, I'm not going down without a fight. He's a tough guy. It isn't like he grabs little guys and rag-dolls them.''
What's inarguable is that so far Jarome Iginla has yet to make any sort of impact on this Western Conference semifinal. And if the underdog, upstart Calgary Flames are to be anything more than a passing footnote for the Wings en route to a date with either the San Jose Sharks or Colorado Avalanche, he has to carve out some room and become productive.
Iggy Pop has, in this series, become Iggy Stop.
But it's tough to keep him down for long.
Detroit administered an old-fashioned hickory-switch caning Saturday, atoning for that vastly undeserved 2-1 Flames' win in the opener at The Joe. Clearly, their depth can be a difference -- can be the difference. The Wings have three potential scoring lines, Calgary only one. Shut down Iginla, their strategy suggests, and chances are there isn't enough surrounding him to pick up the slack.
They just might be right.
Never forget that the Flames ignited to life in their memorable, unsparing seven-game opening-round victory over the Vancouver Canucks only when Iginla
took over the series and made it his own.
Now it's not as if he isn't busting his tail or languishing on the bench (he's averaging nearly 24 minutes of ice time a night in the playoffs, up a full two minutes from the regular season). For a number of other reasons, it's just not happening for the 41-goal power right winger.
When asked if he felt he was contributing enough in the first two games of Round 2, Iginla, in a rare burst of pique, shot quietly but emphatically back: "I have two shots and no goals'' -- or points -- "in two games. Do you think I'm contributing enough?''
Maltby has been all over Iginla like a rash, yakking in his ear, poking and prodding and baiting. And if Iginla somehow shakes free of him for a moment, there stands Hatcher, big enough to blot out the sun, blocking his path.
In Game 2, Iginla generated zero shots.
No wonder he flipped out.
With the series shifted to the Pengrowth Saddledome, Calgary coach Darryl Sutter has last change, and will no doubt attempt to steer Iginla away from the Hatcher-Chris Chelios defensive combination and the re-jigged Grind Line of Maltby, Kris Draper and Steve Yzerman (?!).
Centerman Craig Conroy claimed Iginla's problems are not so much of his own making. Or even of the Wings making, for that matter.
"Oleg (Saprykin) and I have to create more,'' he said matter-of-factly. "We have to do more, bottom line. If we do that, we force them to respect us on the ice, too; we pull them away from Iggy. Right now, there's always two guys on Jarome. They're cheating on him. And that's partly our fault.
"They're just focusing on him and they can get away with it because we're not supporting the way we should.
"That's the way to open up space.
"If we're better, he's better.
"Of course I'm always looking for him. I'd be kind of crazy not to, wouldn't I? Get Jarome the puck, it's usually in the net. But Oleg and I need to do more on our own.''
The loss of Chris Simon on the left wing of the No. 1 line hasn't helped any. A knee injury has the big bruiser out indefinitely, and since being acquired from the New York Rangers, he had proven to be an ideal fit, complementing Iginla and Conroy. In his place, Saprykin adds speed, but not nearly the menace or the presence.
"You can't expect Jarome to score every game,'' chided Flames' coach Darryl Sutter, whose personal challenge to Iginla in Round 1 paid huge dividends. "That's totally unfair.''
Also totally non-negotiable.
"Jarome is a tremendous player,'' lauded gold-medal-winning Olympic teammate Steve Yzerman. "He's the one who makes that team go. We've done a pretty
good job on him so far, but you can't expect to stop a player like that indefinitely.''
Jarome Iginla is not a vain person. Happily, he seems the same sweet-natured kid who came out of the Kamloops junior program to become an all-star, an Olympic hero and a Maurice Richard Tropy-winner. He cares. He has taken the mantle of captain and leader and embraced them here in these playoffs. It isn't in him to give out with the dramatic, headline-catching predictions. He isn't boastfully manipulative. Why, look what guaranteeing victory did for Daniel Alfredsson. Iginla won't go that far. But he did all but vow that his Flames would be a far sterner test from here on in.
"As a group, we've got to skate more,'' he said Monday afternoon. "Look at Donovan, (Marcus) Nilson and (Ville) Nieminen. They were getting some things done in the last game because they were moving their legs. Too often, our line has been caught standing still.
"Home ice is important. Every team would like to have last change. But we can't expect that to fix everything. We have to improve. And we will."
Which means: He will.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.