SUN Hockey Pool

Great expectations

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

CALGARY -- The Calgary Flames will continue with O Canada before all their games this year, giving no thought whatsoever to singing "We Are The Champions" instead.

With a motherlode of free agents joining a roster that already made it to a Stanley Cup final, it's tempting to hand Calgary the conference title right now.

Unless you're standing next to head coach Darryl Sutter, in which case you fawn over the Flaming C's at your own peril.

Asked what he thought about Sports Illustrated picking his club to finish first overall, Sutter could barely contain his sarcasm.

"I'm just thrilled to death," he said, rolling his eyes and letting out a sigh.

"I hardly slept a wink last night. They probably picked us 30th last time, so that tells you what it means."

And so begins the year long tug-of-war between a coach who wants to keep his players grounded and a chorus of outsiders telling them they're a lead pipe cinch to win the West.

"Your expectations and mine are two totally different things," Sutter lectured the media yesterday.

"Whether you believe me or not, and I'm not telling you guys again, my expectations are for our team to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday, and to make the playoffs. And that's it.

"This conference is going to be really tough. I think our biggest challenge is just to make the playoffs."

That's a shocking message for a city that's already booking June reservations on the Red Mile, but it's one he has to get through to his players - lest they become another Carolina, Anaheim or Florida, Cinderella stories who advanced to the final, never to be heard from again.

IMPROVED SUBSTANTIALLY

Yes, Calgary improved substantially, on paper, anyway, by adding Roman Hamrlik, who should thrive in the new game, Daymond Langkow, Darren McCarty and Tony Amonte. But they barely squeaked into eighth last season, and a lot of teams in the West are better.

"It's a nice compliment. It's nice to have different expectations at the start of the season than being picked just out of the playoffs," said captain Jarome Iginla.

"But we know it's going to be tough, nobody in our room is getting ahead of it."

But if they were to get ahead of it, just for a second, are they Cup contenders? Favourites, even?

"I don't think that's for us to say," continued Iginla.

"We have to go earn that, earn a playoff spot first of all, over a gruelling season.

BUSINESS IN OUR ROOM

"Other people can project and do those things, and it's fun as a player to hear different expectations, but it's business in our room. We've got to come together as our group and play to our identity again."

Defenceman Robyn Regehr chants the same mantra. He admits being as excited as everyone else when the Flames were hauling in all that talent in the off-season, but says the initial thrill is over and it's time to get to work.

"We're only concerned about the things that we can control in order to win games and be successful. That's all you can do. If you start thinking and worrying about things you can't control, everything that's going on around you, all those distractions, that's when you really start to struggle personally and as a team.

"We've learned as players to help one another in that way and if we're struggling with it we have a great coaching staff to help us out."

Rest assured Sutter won't let any big heads get in the way of their goal.

"He challenges guys each and every day to be their best," said Regehr.

"If you're not pulling your weight, or playing to your full potential, he's going to let you know about it.

"Not just one-on-one or in front of the room, but in the media and everywhere, so you're going to get the message loud and clear."


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