They have a new head coach in Jim Playfair, they’ve improved up front with the additions of Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy, the blue-line has been bolstered by the acquisition of Brad Stuart, and they’re brandishing a much more potent offence.
Veteran Calgary centre Stephane Yelle says the Flames are a confident bunch headed into Thursday night’s opening game at Joe Louis Arena against the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
“We know their style and we know how we need to play against them to be successful as we have been this year,’ Yelle said.
Third last in the NHL in goals (218) last year and the only team in the bottom nine to qualify for the playoffs, Calgary scored 40 more goals this year, sixth best in the league. Of the playoff teams in the West, only Nashville (277) was more lethal.
“We do have more firepower this season and we know we can score more but when it comes to playoffs, you have to play solid ‘D’ and that’s where we’ve been inconsistent,” Yelle said. “If we can take care of our own end, we’ll get our chances and we’ve got the tools now to score the big goals.’
Another difference is Calgary enters this post-season back in the role of underdog having not clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West until the second-last day of the season.
Starting on the road is a familiar scenario. During their improbable Stanley Cup run in 2004, which ended in a Game 7 loss in Tampa Bay, Calgary was the underdog for the entire journey.
That spring, as red Flames jerseys sprung up across the country and The Red Mile forged its way onto the Canadian landscape, many suggested the Flames underdog status was a big part of their charm.
“Personally, I don’t think the seeding really matters,” Yelle said. “The eight teams that made the playoffs are good teams and any one of those teams could end up winning it.”
Last year, Calgary won the Northwest Division and as the third seed drew the upstart Anaheim Ducks in the opening round. With the glass slipper on the other foot, Calgary was bounced from the playoffs in seven games, a disappointing outcome that reminded fans once again of the playoff futility that has haunted the franchise since hoisting its only Stanley Cup in 1989.
The Flames’ series victories in 2004 over Vancouver, Detroit, and San Jose remain the lone three series wins in the last 17 years.
Along with stars Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, two keys this year could be Conroy and Tanguay.
A central figure two springs earlier as Iginla’s centre and one of the team’s off-ice leaders, Conroy’s upbeat demeanour was noticeably absent last year after he left signing a lucrative free agent deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
Flames general manager Darryl Sutter reacquired the fan favourite Jan. 29 in hopes that the 35-year-old could restore a sense of calm and looseness in the Flames room, deemed a missing ingredient last year.
“He’s great in the room, a good leader and you can’t have enough of those guys,” Daymond Langkow. “He’s got lot of experience, especially for this team from its run in 2004. He’s good on face-offs, and works well obviously with Iggy and Tangs.”
Tanguay, acquired last summer from Colorado in exchange for defenceman Jordan Leopold, has fit in equally well with Iginla rounding out the Flames top line. Much of Calgary’s offensive improvement this year can be attributed to Tanguay’s 59 assists and 81 points. Tanguay’s play-making being something the team had been desperately lacking.
Having never missed the playoffs, Tanguay brings 83 games of post-season experience to the table including 18 goals, 32 assists, and a Stanley Cup ring with the Avalanche in 2001.
The biggest question is which Calgary Flames team will show up. Will it be the winners of six games in a row in a critical stretch at the end of March when their post-season aspirations were hanging in the balance, or will it be the team that limped into the playoffs losers of their last four.
“When we won those six straight, we were playing solid hockey, working hard, we were back to basics,” Yelle said. “We got away from that the last three or four games and to be successful in the playoffs, we’ll have to get back to it.”
This will especially be the case against a hungry Detroit wanting to avoid seeing its post-season end in Alberta for a third season in a row.
Notes: Calgary’s biggest concern health-wise is defenceman Robyn Regehr, who missed the final two games of the regular season with a lower body injury. “I’m feeling all right and my plan is to travel with the team to Detroit,” Regehr said. He says the injury is not as severe as everyone first thought. His status is day-to-day.