Calgarypuck Season Wrap Up
Making Up For Lost Time

Rick Charlton
June 16th, 2004

Maybe they were making up for lost time.

Fifteen years removed from a playoff series win and seven years from even having the opportunity, Calgary Flames nearly crowned the ultimate in famine to feast seasons by coming within a single win of a Stanley Cup championship.

How on earth can they possibly top that?

And who on earth saw it coming in the first place?

A summer that began amid changes in management saw clarity of vision emerging at the top, the appointment of Darryl Sutter to the controversial dual role of both GM and coach probably the defining moment for a franchise desperate to crawl out of its black hole of mediocrity.

So what if others in the dual role in the NHL would fail to survive the season? The one guy still standing was also the most successful, a Calgary coach completely in tune with his GM and vice versa a refreshing change for a franchise plagued by back office turbulence for too many years.

Out went the Smurf Line and pretty much anyone else under 6 feet, the Flames going from a milquetoast outfit to one of the more physically challenging teams in the NHL in a heartbeat with Sutter continuing to pile it on throughout the campaign, something his predecessor had difficulty doing once the opening puck had been dropped.

Sutter declared throughout this process the Flames would "compete for a playoff spot" and promised little else yet delivered so much more, often in Twilight Zone fashion.

The "how" of how they did it was plain enough. A team that was perennially in the bottom third of the league defensively was now suddenly among the top five, still struggling to score but giving up so little they couldn't fail to rack up points.

Still, the Flames didn't really take off until the arrival in late November of a third string goaltender from San Jose, Miikka Kiprusoff, who, in spite of a low pulse personality, immediately shot a bolt of electricity through a moribund franchise, going 10-1-1-1 in his first 13 starts and rocketing the Flames to a perch of respectability.

"As soon as Miikka got here and we could see what he could do, that's when I thought we had a chance," said Craig Conroy in the immediate hubbub celebration after Calgary had eliminated San Jose in the third round of the playoffs. "I thought he was our MVP."

Beyond Kiprusoff, it was a season of unlikely heroes, of someone, even the unluckiest people on the roster, stepping up with big games or even stretches of games when needed.

There was Shean Donovan, a career single digit scorer, suddenly on six game goal scoring streak with Rocket Richard Trophy winner Jarome Iginla mired in an early season funk. Or third string goaltender Jamie McLennan fighting through painful injuries to deliver points when no one else was left standing. As the playoffs neared and came to pass, injuries felled key Flames Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier on the Calgary blue line but there were The Doors, Steve Montador and Mike Commodore, as well as Andrew Ference all stepping up to fill the gap admirably.

Whatever Sutter touched seemed to turn to gold, Kiprusoff being the obvious example but that list included Rhett Warrener, maligned and unwanted in Buffalo, coming in to steady a young defence core, or the late season acquisitions of Marcus Nilson and Ville Nieminen, persona non grata's in Florida and Chicago but suddenly key cogs in a lengthy Stanley Cup run.

Amazingly, through it all, the roster from game one to game 108 was never completely healthy and yet they continued to compete and continued to keep their heads above water, finally clinching a playoff spot in the final week of the season.

In the end, they stood one win away from a Stanley Cup, poised to conquer with a 3-2 series lead over Tampa Bay.

We were left disappointed when it slipped away but how disappointed could we seriously be when we stepped back to look upon it, the whole deliriously unlikely, wild thing?

WHAT WENT RIGHT - When you end up only a single win short of a perfect season, it figures most things were going your way, particularly when you would have been the lowest seed to ever win a championship and the first team that would have beaten four 100 point challengers, four division champions, along the way.

Sutter would be the first to tell you he had no idea Miikka Kiprusoff would emerge as the new new record holder for the lowest goals against average in NHL history. In fact, Kiprusoff's emergence as a "money" goaltender was even more eyebrow-raising than his statistics, the Finnish goaltender sporting an 8-2 record in games ending 2-1 and victorious in both games he played ending 1-0.

Moreover, he was 4-1 and 2-1 in the playoffs in similar circumstances, eliminating Detroit with back to back 1-0 decisions. It almost goes without saying Calgary was the kind of team that would have lost the majority of those games in years past.

The season didn't start off well for new captain Jarome Iginla, on pace for 26 goals in mid-December, accusations of being a perimeter player and trade talk swirling. But Iginla began to find his sea legs around Christmas then went on one of his now patented longish scoring streaks, finally emerging as a co-winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy in only the second three way tie in NHL history, a Hart Trophy nominee for the second time .

In turn, that was only a run up for what was to come next, a dominating playoff performance that would have netted him a Conn Smythe Trophy had the Flames actually won the Stanley Cup.

The long anticipated coming of age of the youngish Calgary blue line was another story, Robyn Regehr recovering from a decidedly mediocre and disappointing 2002-2003 to emerge as one of the best young defencemen in the game, then capping it with a dominating playoff. Jordan Leopold also had a steady coming out party with the promise of greater things still to come for the second year pro. Rhett Warrener was everything Sutter advertised him to be but it was Ference, the smallish but sturdy puck rushing rearguard who would find an extra gear in the playoffs after an up and down season.

What of Matthew Lombardi taking advantage of a string of injuries to unexpectedly make the opening day roster and then turn in a fine rookie campaign? Or the emergence of Oleg Saprykin in the finals as a player who appeared to care, something we were wondering about for a few years.

The unsubtle presence of travailed enforcer Krszystof Oliwa might have also been an overlooked factor in the campaign, his NHL leading fight totals often setting the early physical tone in many a game.

In the end though, it was about bringing all of these parts together and focussing them into a single purpose, a single direction, that being a swarming forechecking style made capable by the speed, size and aggressiveness injected by Sutter from mid-summer through to the March trade deadline.

They saw they were capable. They believed. And then it happened.

WHAT WENT WRONG? A spate of injuries was threatening to submarine the calendar before the pages were even flipping into November, the Flames loosing their top three centres at one point and their best two goaltenders at another.

In games 107 and 108 of the season, the lack of healthy bodies, the multitudes on the sidelines, probably became too much, a Stanley Cup championship that might well have been lost for a lack of healthy bodies.

But it was that way throughout the season.

With the Flames seeing Craig Conroy, Stephane Yelle, Dean McAmmond and Steve Reinprecht hobbled, there was rookie Matthew Lombardi competing hard at centre and helping to keep the team afloat.

As much as we laud Kiprusoff, he appeared only 38 times, a saviour yes but McLennan having some claim to that title as well, playing in agony but securing a vital win and a tie against Anaheim and LA in his final starts as a Flame.

We can slap The Doors and Ference on the back all we want but the truth is their roles might have been diminished to nothingness had injuries not forced them into the lineup over the furrowed concerns of Sutter, probably surprised as anyone they stepped up and filled the gap more than capably.

Injuries were the bane of a team that had little else fail them.

STAYING AND GOING - For three years he's been the Laurel to Jarome Iginla's Hardy but the days of Craig Conroy in a Calgary uniform might be drawing to a close. That is, if you believe the scuttlebutt. Or even if you believe the inference of Sutter himself who told a press conference before Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals that he had spent parts of the previous game musing about how he could have used Reinprecht in various situations to save himself from a loss, some interpreting that as a swipe at the ineffective Conroy.

Conroy has been in and out of Sutter's doghouse since the moment the fiery farmer arrived in Calgary, not helping himself with a single goal through much of the campaign, even if he was generating nearly a point per game in the final third of the season.

Going forward, it could well be that Sutter sees Conroy still in a Flames uniform, but in a different role and certainly in a different pay bracket.

We would also assume Sutter is also smart enough to know that depth and particularly veteran depth is what got him into the playoffs and within a game of a championship and that a two-time Selke finalist who may come cheaply isn't something you toss into the garbage lightly.

Conroy clearly wants to play here. This may still get done.

The future of Denis Gauthier in a Calgary uniform is always a subject of speculation even if there aren't many on the roster who bleed the Flaming red as badly as Gauthier does. Truth is, however, he's being forced down the depth chart by better players even as his salary stays the same, usually a sure sign of an impending trade.

There is something to the notion that Sutter may seek to secure the services of Chris Simon into next year, the Calgary coach lamenting at the trade deadline the team was badly missing a power forward of Simon's description. Will that spell the end of the line for Oliwa, a fourth line tough guy losing out to a tough guy who can play the top two lines?

The Flames would love to depart with Roman Turek even though his numbers were coming up quite nicely in the latter stages of the season and the fact he was a consummate team player through the playoff run. That nasty salary of his for what is likely a backup role is weighing on the franchise. Badly. If Kiprusoff falters, however, he might be more welcome than we suspect.

Lastly, Dean McAmmond, another player who moved easily into and out of the doghouse with Sutter, may have seen his last days as a Flame although, as with Conroy, his speed, skill and veteran savvy has to be enticing.

But choices will have to be made and it's simply reality for any NHL team that a quarter or a third of a roster will typically turn over in the off-season.

The Flames will probably be no different.

AVOIDING THE ANAHEIM SYNDROME? - The way to avoid the Anaheim Syndrome should be fairly straightforward for Calgary.

They need Miikka Kiprusoff to avoid the J.S. Giguere Syndrome.

Tempering that comment somewhat is that Giguere was a one-man show in many ways in Anaheim last year and, predictably, any falloff in his performance was likely to doom them from the get-go.

In Calgary, you had a Flames team consistently playing a terrific team game and Kiprusoff filled in with performance after performance of astonishingly error-free goaltending, the style of the team in front of him and the man himself seeming to mesh into one finely tuned instrument.

When the Flames got off their game, when the shot clock began to rise, Kiprusoff didn't necessarily rescue the Flames as Giguere did with Anaheim.

The evidence might be that McLennan was able to carry the Flames through The Injury Troubles even though his performances were spotty at times, the overall team defence being the real star moreso than the goaltender.

It's just that Kiprusoff proved himself so much better than Turek and McLennan in virtually all the tight games he played, with nothing getting by him that wasn't earned, the confidence that flows from that out into the team immeasurable.

The interesting thing about the Flames in their quest to avoid being one shot wonders is they really didn't get to where they ended up, near the pinnacle, with anything near a full team, implying that a follow-up season should give Sutter options even allowing for the inevitable tailing off of those playing over their heads.

Working against them is the combination of a short summer of recovery and the frenetic, high-energy style they need to play to be successful. Then there is the fact almost half the roster will be gearing up for the August/September World Cup, cutting recovery times even shorter.

Sad to say, a lockout, even a brief one, might help them recharge their batteries.


  Back to
Read other Stories
Talk About it!