CALGARY – For the third year in a row, more was expected of the Calgary Flames.
But the veteran team with a veteran coach exited in the first round of NHL playoffs again. The Flames stretched their series against the favoured San Jose Sharks to a full seven games and played some of their best hockey of the season in it.
But some wasn’t enough against the No. 2 team in the league and the hottest club since the trade deadline on Feb. 26.
“It’s definitely numbing to be out and have to watch them after a good series,” Flames captain Jarome Iginla said.
The playoffs reflected the Flames’ season in missed opportunities and inconsistent play.
In Game 4, they led 2-1 with five minutes to go. Instead of taking a 3-1 lead in the series, they fell apart in their own end and gave up two goals, including the winner with 10 seconds left.
Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff was both brilliant and average at times in the series.
Coach Mike Keenan’s decision to replace him with Curtis Joseph after San Jose’s four-goal outburst in the second period of Game 7 did not spark the same comeback the move did in Game 3, when the Flames were down 3-0 after the first four minutes.
While Owen Nolan and Daymond Langkow provided secondary scoring with three goals apiece, Alex Tanguay was often guilty of holding onto the puck too long or passing when he could have shot it.
Kristian Huselius, the team’s No. 2 scorer during the regular season, also did not score a goal and had just five shots on net.
Craig Conroy and Matthew Lombardi were held without a goal, although Lombardi took on a more defensive role in the series and did it well.
The one constant for the Flames was Iginla, who followed up his 50-goal season by almost pushing the Flames through to the next round by the sheer force of his will.
His fierce competitiveness at both ends of the ice earned a commendation from Sharks veteran Jeremy Roenick after Game 7.
“Iginla is one of the best warriors in the game,” Roenick said.
Norris trophy candidate Dion Phaneuf’s 36 hits, plus three goals and four assists, helped his team compete with the Sharks.
He was more effective in Calgary’s end in the last three games of the series than in the middle two when he was on the ice for all six of San Jose’s goals in Games 3 and 4.
Keenan was hired on a three-year contract to replace Jim Playfair last June after Detroit beat Calgary in six games in the first round. Playfair remained with the team this season as Keenan’s associate coach.
Keenan was Calgary’s new third coach in as many years as GM Darryl Sutter moved out of the coach’s position in 2006 when the Flames lost in the first round to Anaheim.
Acquiring Keenan was a tough-love move as he brought with him a reputation for drawing a line in the sand and challenging his players to step over it.
When the Flames did, they either didn’t do it together or some players would step back the next game.
“It is a frustrating group to work with,” Keenan acknowledged last month during a 1-3 road trip.
In the end, what did Keenan extract from the Flames that Playfair didn’t?
A 42-30-10 record was worth two points less in the regular season, but one position higher in the Western Conference. The Flames got one more playoff game, but didn’t parlay it into another round.
Slow starts alternated with the inability to defend a lead this season. Calgary was better on the road, but worse at home.
The Flames had a good October, a bad November, an excellent December and January and were then basically a .500 team the rest of the way.
The Northwest Division title and home-ice advantage in the playoffs was there for the Flames in their final nine games of the regular season against division rivals.
But a 5-4 record in that span – including pivotal losses of 2-1 to Edmonton and 3-1 to Minnesota – meant a less favourable matchup in the first round.
Still, the Flames felt a Stanley Cup was well within their sights if they could get past San Jose.
“We knew heading into this series, we beat this team, we had a pretty good chance going the distance,” Tanguay said.
The Flames were guilty of leaving points on the table this season. They were among the top third in the league in overtime and shootout losses with 10.
Calgary was remarkably healthy for a team tied as the fifth oldest in the NHL at 29.2 in average age. The Flames lost 120 man games to injury compared to Edmonton, which lost 340.
Iginla, Kiprusoff, Phaneuf and defenceman Robyn Regehr all signed long-term contracts within the last year.
Of the 11 players scheduled to enter free agency this year, Huselius, Langkow, Nolan and Joseph are the notable names.