Flames prove to be enigma

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

When Mike Keenan was quoted in a Denver practice rink Sunday saying expectations might be too high for the Calgary Flames, he wasn't talking about the fans.

But maybe he should have been.

The Flames are not an elite team, and it's about time the city accepts it.

"This group has a lot to learn about winning," said Keenan yesterday.

Nothing short of a dominant season from start to finish will please many of the fans first frenzied by the run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004.

Elite teams don't lose three straight games by identical 4-1 scores. Upper-echelon clubs don't struggle so mightily on special teams.

The cream of the crop doesn't give you a glimpse of how great they can be in one night -- or one period -- then stink it up the next.

Keenan put his words from Denver into context by explaining he doesn't expect any team in the competitive Northwest to run away with a division title.

The head coach does have high hopes for his Flames -- including the idea of rising to the top of their division and staying there.

However, they still have a long way to go after putting up only six wins in the first 15 games.

"The idea for this franchise is that, yes, they were a playoff team, but they had a first-round exit," said Keenan.

"Yes, they were a playoff team the previous year -- and a first-round exit -- within the new rules.

"Prior to that they went to the finals, but I think that was a one-time run where there was several years where they didn't make the playoffs."

Which led to: "This group has a lot to learn about winning."

Keenan has said that before, and likely will have to say it again.

Fifteen games aren't enough to predict where a team will finish.

The players can learn and grow along the way, as a group and as individuals. There are examples from history that prove a start as underwhelming as the Flames' 6-6-3 record doesn't preclude them from finishing as a top team, or even winning the Cup.

The Flames, at times this season, have looked an awful lot like an elite team. Or at least one that's capable of becoming one.

Frustration among the fans is building because of that very reason.

"We've had games where we've shown what we're capable of: We've had teams on their heels; we're fast; we're making plays; we're working hard in our own zone," said Jarome Iginla yesterday.

Then there are the games like the one in Denver Monday night. Listless, passionless, hard to watch.

"We've seen the good side. We know what we're capable of," Iginla continued.

"We need to see more of the better."

A lot more, and soon, if they continue to expect big things from themselves as they did before the season began.

"We've made the playoffs, now we want to be a top team," said Iginla. "That's our goal, to rise and be one of those top, consistent teams.

"We still believe we can reach that."

So does Keenan, whose 1993-94 New York Rangers struggled at times before eventually claiming the Cup that spring.

Right now, the Flames' scope is the top of their own division.

"That's not an unrealistic push as far as we're concerned," said Keenan, whose team has six straight dates against division rivals.

But it will take more effort from a team that still has much to learn despite the fact it's loaded with league veterans.

"To change human nature, to change habits, there's always a lot of resistance," said Keenan. "That's fundamentally how human beings operate. It takes a lot of persistence, and a lot of dedication and commitment and leadership to continue to get better.

"They're not a developmental group because of the experience that they have, but they're developmental in terms of winning."

And winning is everything in this town.


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