Modest bunch

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

The Hockey News says the Calgary Flames have the best player in hockey, the NHL record book says they have the best goalie and, according to most scouts, they also have the best defensive corps.

Mix in a handful of experienced free agents, some scoring help and a stud defenceman in junior sensation Dion Phaneuf and there are plenty of reasons to believe Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and the Sea of Red that took over Calgary in 2004 will have a fair shot at marching back to the Stanley Cup final.

Heck, as far as Vegas oddsmakers are concerned, the Red Mile that gave birth to flamesgirls.com may play host to a springtime parade.

Ranked third amongst all teams as 11-1 favourites to win their second Cup, the Flames enter the NHL's new era with momentum few clubs can compete with.

Fan and corporate support in this booming oil town is such that every seat to every game has been sold out and the season ticket waiting list of the late '80s has returned.

It's quite a turnaround for a franchise that made mild threats to leave town when support sagged during an eight-year run without playoff payoffs.

With the new CBA stabilizing the small market club's future, character veterans such as Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty and Roman Hamrlik took notice of the euphoria and structure in southern Alberta and signed on with Darryl Sutter.

Add trade acquisition Daymond Langkow and a healthy Steven Reinprecht to more than replace the departed Craig Conroy and the Flames entered camp with a buzz that matches the city's.

"Everybody says that, yeah, we look great on paper but the truth of the matter is everybody has kind of restructured their teams for the rule changes," said Jordan Leopold, one of a handful of Flames blueliners capable of quarterbacking any NHL team's powerplay.

"The Calgary Flames are going to play the same way as we did in the past -- that's with hard work and grit. If we don't play that way, we'll find ourselves losing at the end of the night.

"We can't read the papers and watch the tube -- we have to keep it in the locker-room and stay focused.

"When it's all said and done, it's all up to us and we're the ones who control our destiny."

If any man is capable of keeping a team grounded, it's Sutter, who refuses to get nostalgic about the improbable 2004 run.

"Last I saw, we barely made the playoffs and we lost our last game -- that's not good enough," said Sutter, shrugging off his club's Game 7 loss to Tampa and the heightened expectations that could dog his young squad.

"Expectations are good. Instead of people asking, 'Are you going to make the playoffs?' I'd rather have them asking, 'How are you going to do in the playoffs?'

"It's not pressure at all -- that's what you're supposed to do."

A fast, puck-pursuit club Sutter figures will excel under the league's new crackdowns emphasizing skill and skating, the Flames will count heavily on leaders such as Robyn Regehr, Stephane Yelle, Rhett Warrener, Reinprecht and Iginla to bring along highly-touted youngsters such as Matt Lombardi, Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom and Phaneuf.

If Kiprusoff can challenge for the modern goals-against average record he set last season and the team continues to exhibit a Sutter-like work ethic, there's little reason to believe the suddenly deep squad won't bid for a top seed in the tough Western Conference.

"Even Seabiscuit eventually became a favourite but that didn't make it any easier for him to win," said team president Ken King of the heightened expectations.

It sure made everybody watch, though, and that's exactly what all of Calgary intends to do.


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