Flames Watch: Crunch time for Keenan

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Mike Keenan’s defining moment in his two-year tenure as coach of the Calgary Flames will surely come in the next two weeks.

He’ll either find a way to buoy this floundering ship and get the Flames into the second round of the playoffs or he’ll sink under the weight of great expectations and unsolved problems – and lose his job after a first round exit.

Calgary has hit a rough patch at the most inopportune time, winning just six times in 16 games on the eve of the playoffs. The Flames haven’t won back-to-back games in that five-week stretch.

Olli Jokinen got off to a hot start with his new team – eight goals in six games – but hasn’t scored in 11 games since. Keenan has to find the winning combination for him immediately.

Since Jokinen arrived, Mike Cammalleri’s stick has been ice cold – two goals in 16 games. Like Jokinen, he’s getting the chances, but not connecting. Keenan’s next moves with those snipers must be pivotal.

The power play just isn’t working anymore. In the early stages of its breakdown, the Flames’ power players lacked any sense of urgency, as though it was Calgary’s divine right to have the puck enter the net. Recently, a sense of panic occupies most of the two-minute sessions. An 0-for-36 stretch in eight games will do that. Keenan’s job is to strike a balance between urgency and panic.

The regression of defenseman Dion Phaneuf has been startling. The fourth-year wunderkind has been a flop, by his standards, offensively and a train wreck defensively. Watch replays of Calgary goals allowed recently and you’ll see a Phaneuf breakdown. Yet Keenan rides him almost 30 minutes a game, much of it in key situations.

Calgary has outshot the opposition eight times in the past 12 games, yet the opposition has opened the scoring 10 times compared to two for the Flames. Something is amiss with goalie Miikka Kiprusoff.

Keenan has made his bed this year on playing Kiprusoff to exhaustion. Having not granted backup Curtis McElhinney the experience to gain confidence, Keenan has no fall-back plan. He’ll have to go with Kiprusoff in the weekend series against Edmonton to stay ahead of Vancouver for the division lead and, possibly, home ice advantage.

A couple weeks from now, winning that division title may seem like the most hollow of victories.

This column also appears in the Calgary Metro newspaper.

Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can read his Top 10 list on Wednesdays and his blog each weekend.

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