Darren Eliot
Monday March 9th, 2009

Every year this seems to happen to me: the Calgary Flames and the specter of their playoff potential draws me in. In past years, I liked the Flames from the outset, only to see them exit from postseason existence much earlier than anticipated. I felt jilted last year when they performed as a middle-tier team (14th overall, 16th defensively, 19th on the power play and 20th on the PK) and then had the San Jose Sharks unceremoniously bounce them in the first round.

This year, I kept my distance -- despite admiring what GM Darryl Sutter did during the offseason in getting bigger and edgier on the wings with the additions of Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Todd Bertuzzi. Further, adding Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at last week's trade deadline were astute moves in that they addressed specific needs and rounded out the roster with experienced players.

So where does that put the Flames now?

Well, currently they are struggling in the midst of a seven-game road odyssey in which they've lost two straight versus Southeast Division opponents. But injuries abound. Five regulars are sidelined, including Bourque and Bertuzzi. All should be back soon, so if you consider the Flames healthy heading into the playoffs, the pangs of possibility reemerge.

The allure begins with captain Jarome Iginla. He now has eight straight seasons of at least 30 goals and is playing his best hockey of the season, with an eight-game point streak: nine goals and eight assists during that span. Iginla remains the standard-bearer for all power forwards. He leads by example with equal parts grit and goal-scoring, with his rugged style in evidence throughout the lineup.

Likewise, the defense is imposing with Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf patrolling the Flames' zone. Leopold gives them another adept puck-mover on the backend. In goal, Miikka Kiprusoff has performed much better than a year ago -- he's finally used to head coach Mike Keenan's demanding style -- especially when the Flames are a man down. They've improved to third in the NHL when killing penalties due in large part to Kiprusoff's efforts and an aggressive mentality by the forwards.

Jokinen becomes an integral part in all of this. Keenan coached him in Florida, turning him into a productive NHL forward. The hope is that Jokinen will flourish again under Keenan and, as the coach told me, it is vital in the Western Conference to have an imposing presence in the middle.

"With all of the big bodies at center out west, bringing Olli in was important," Keenan said. "He has the size and skill set to compete against the types of players we're going to have to go up against in the spring. We need him to battle."

It really is all about the springtime for these Calgary Flames. They have proven veterans throughout the lineup and their physical work along the boards wears teams down. The numbers bear it out: a plus-19 goal differential in the third period; 23-0-3 mark when leading after two periods and most telling, when a game is up for grabs after playing even through 40 minutes, the Flames are 13-0-3 in such situations.

It all adds up to a tough, talented team that closes close games late. Sounds like one built for series play to me -- one that is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. I just hope the Flames don't burn me again.

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