SUN Hockey Pool

Can they stand the heat?

Star forward Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames are ready to begin another season as they prepare...

Star forward Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames are ready to begin another season as they prepare to take on the Minnesota Wild in their 2005-06 NHL season opener on Wednesday. (Calgary Sun Photo/Al Charest)

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 2:28 PM ET

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Hunted to hunter. Prey to predator.

Now that the lockout is over, the chase has finally begun again for Lord Stanley's mug.

For the first time in what seems an eternity, the Flames aren't heading into a season hoping to end a playoff drought.

Sure, being able to punch a ticket for the post-season dance is a long way off and must be earned between now and mid-April. But the 2005-06 Flames open the season tonight against the Minnesota Wild (6 p.m, TSN, FAN 960) pegged to be part of the playoffs.

Actually, they aren't just expected to be in second season. Listen to enough voices and read enough words and you'll find them among the favourites to win it all.

It's a whole new world for Flames fans to contemplate.

Some players, too. Or is it?

Not so, insists team captain Jarome Iginla.

"I don't think the mindset has changed much from two years ago," said Iginla. "All those years going into the start of the year, we talked about how important the start was, that we can't get behind the 8-ball, so we were pushing for every game there like we're pushing for every game now.

"It really doesn't feel like we're preparing any differently. You're not thinking about who's favoured or not being favoured."

Besides, Iginla said, there was pressure on himself and the rest of the team to end the playoff drought that lasted through seven seasons.

Each year became more agonizing and more stressful in the quest to turn the corner.

"I don't know if it's more pressure but it's different pressure," he said.

"We had a ton of pressure on us to end the tough streak. For the guys here for that, it was a lot of pressure -- each year there was more and more -- and we learned to deal with that. Besides, you look at every team in the league and each team is under pressure for a different reason."

In the Stampede City, it's to claim the franchise's second Cup crown.

Stephane Yelle, who won two Stanley Cups with Colorado, is familiar with high expectations going into a season.

"With the group of guys we have and our run a couple of years ago, expectations here are going to be high," Yelle said.

"That's the pressure we have to deal with but I think we'll be all right. Certain guys will deal differently with expectations. But you go back two years ago, Darryl (Sutter) implemented high expectations from every guy and it's what took us to the Stanley Cup final.

"This year won't be any different."

New Flame Darren McCarty, a three-time Cup winner with Detroit, echoes Yelle's sentiments.

"It's nice to be thought of as a top team but it means nothing. The bottom line is we've got to harness that," he said.

"Yes, expectations are different but our expectations are higher. We want to win and win every time we step on the ice."

Besides, Yelle points out, reaching lofty heights with extra weight on the shoulders makes the taste of success all the more sweeter.

"That's the fun part of the game," he said.

"That's why you play the game. When there's no pressure or everything's on an even keel, winning doesn't matter."


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