Off-season of 'what ifs'

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

Even after two sleeps, Darren McCarty still couldn't put his finger on what happened.

He couldn't pin down how the Flames, a team with so much promise and so much potential to return to the Stanley Cup final, was packing up and heading home for the summer after being ousted in the first round.

"The thing that's gonna sit in the back of most of our minds, leave a bad taste in our mouth, is how flat we were. For a Game 7 you worked for all year, it's tough to have that effort," McCarty said yesterday. "We were a good team and a tough team to play against all year when we played together and we were all going. In the series, we maybe played two games that way.

"Against a team that you're matched up with pretty evenly, that's not going to cut it. Do we think that we're a better team? Yeah but we didn't prove it and that's why we're going home."

Leaving the Saddledome one-by-one with their equipment in tow, the Flames were still in various phases of recovery.

Some, like Chris Simon, were still too disappointed in their team's demise to imagine pondering next season.

"I'm very disappointed. I still can't believe we're done," Simon said.

Others, such as Andrew Ference, were able to put their frustration into words.

"Just disappointment," said the defenceman. "Not just because you lost but because I think everybody knows how much more this team had. We never really reached that top level that we could have as a team."

Naturally, the question is why? Why did they not have more spark in the clinching game?

Was it fatigue? Was it the pressure? Was it a lack of chemistry?

"We knew everything was there to win," Ference said. "The guys that got brought in were super tight. Half of us are all going on vacation together on Monday. That says a lot about how tight a team is. Usually, a season ends guys are out of Dodge in a day.

"We're all sitting around B.S.-ing after the game and we're like, 'Let's go somewhere. Let's do something together.' That's pretty cool."

Then there's the pressing concern about the team's lack of offence, with the common theory being its lack of goals stemming from a stifling defensive system.

Captain Jarome Iginla shot down that premise and said he wouldn't ask for a change.

"No, not really -- I just want to win," he said. "System-wise we had a strong system -- we won the Jennings -- we put ourselves in a position to be a better club."

At least the Flames, most of them, will have another chance together next year.

After all, barring a stunning rebuilding program, Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter won't make as many changes as he did between the 2004 playoffs and this past season.

Which means the defending Northwest Division champs figure they'll be just as big of a threat when the 2007 post-season begins.

"You've got to always look at the positives," McCarty said. "When I came here I mentioned that it reminded me of Detroit in '96. We didn't win the Cup in '96, it was sort of a learning process.

"We grew a bunch this year as a group.

"We succeeded in some things -- winning the Northwest was big and a big step. But we've got bigger and better things to come.

"It'll just refocus us.

"Everybody knows how big competitors we are in this dressing room and how much it means to us. It's disappointing now and it sucks but hopefully in the long run we'll be better for it."


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