Talent out in full force

ERIC FRANCIS, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

Somewhere along the way, the Calgary Flames became a team of skill.

Somehow, someway they went from being a gritty hard-hat crew that won games with pure sweat and heart to a team of playmakers scoring highlight-reel gems with style.

No longer are forwards banging away while in close, crashing the net in desperation and scoring almost exclusively off rebounds.

Instead, they're holding onto the puck a little longer, exhibiting increased patience, making that extra saucer pass and finishing with panache.

With the return of Jarome Iginla last night, the Flames pieced together a pair of top lines that could match the skill of any team's top six forwards in the league.

And after they had done their damage early in a 6-2 laugher over the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets, the muckers stepped in to fight their star players' battles.

First it was Rhett Warrener streaking admirably to Iginla's aid as a petulant Zenon Konopka tried making a name for himself.

Reminding Iginla and everyone else in the league No. 12 won't be dropping the mitts anytime soon, Warrener roughed up the naive centre as he jawed with el capitano.

Later in the period, Eric Godard reinforced that message, ignoring Jody Shelley with whom he danced to a draw earlier in the evening, making a beeline to Konopka for a warranted beating.

And that's perfectly fine, giving Godard a fairly decent chance of sticking around for the balance of the season than most predicted.

These stars need protection. While Iginla is capable of fighting his own battles, there's little to gain from a Game 53 tussle against someone whose name can hardly be pronounced, let alone remembered.

Thing is, Iginla isn't the only target anymore.

Teams looking to get the Flames top players off their game now have a long list of targets including all three members of the JACk line -- Jarome, Alex Tanguay and Conroy.

While the trio worked old school magic for the game's first two goals, the second wave of finishers -- Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius and rookie surprise David Moss -- posted a YouTube-type beauty to make it 4-0.

Floating around all night rekindling chemistry with several linemates on and off the powerplay, Iginla picked up his third point of the night with a pretty pass to Huselius and the bona fide star finished with an extra move and patience few NHLers are capable of.

Even on Mark Giordano's goal -- a pretty wrist shot from the faceoff dot that found the far side -- Moss was instrumental in positioning himself perfectly for the screen.

For further proof of how things have changed, ask yourself this: When was the last time Iginla had three points and was third star?

The problem the Flames face now, as a team with enough skill to score with almost anyone in the league, is that their trademark defensive game has slipped to the point Miikka Kiprusoff is facing 30-plus shots with regularity. Surely that can be made up for with harder work and increased focus in their own end, something that used to be this club's chief ingredient to success.

None of this is to suggest the club is lacking in work ethic or defying their coach.

The team is simply evolving, putting on a different face than the one Darryl Sutter forced them to start wearing when he took over late in 2002.

They seem to be adjusting just fine.

And darn, it's fun to watch.


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