Hart of the Flames

STEVE MACFARLANE, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Craig Conroy has seen this all before.

It was during his pal Jarome Iginla's first Hart-worthy season back in 2001-02.

Robbed of the NHL's most valuable player award because of Eastern imbalance in the voting and one Montreal-based voter allegedly leaving the Calgary Flames star off his list entirely, Iginla is making sure he has everyone's attention this time.

The Flames captain has almost single-handedly turned his team's season around. He has 31 goals -- his seventh straight season with at least 30, and ninth in a row with 28 or more -- including a league-best six game-winners and not a single empty-netter in the bunch.

Many of his snipes have come in the third period with the game on the line.

Remembering Iginla's 2001-02 season -- the one in which he led the league with 52 goals and 96 points during the clutch-and-grab days -- Conroy admits this year is looking even better.

"It was pretty impressive at the time because he was way ahead of everyone else," said Conroy of the season that saw Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore edge Iginla to steal the Hart Trophy.

"The first half (of this season) is the best I've seen him ever play. He used to have to bull his way in, but now he just does it all.

"It's fun to watch. He's feeling good. You can see the confidence. He's smiling."

Almost always seen wearing a smile, Iginla has even more of a reason to do so with his team riding a record of 11-1-4 since Dec. 1.

The surge has them on the brink of snatching the Northwest Division lead from the Vancouver Canucks.

With 18 goals, five assists and a plus-14 rating over those 16 games, Iginla is leading by example. Of course, he was doing that before the turnaround, too.

"When we were struggling, he was still the one guy that was rolling along," said Conroy. "He was trying to get this thing going."

Head coach Mike Keenan has had to call out some of his stars, but never Iginla. Not once.

"Each and every game, he's contributing either offensively or defensively," said Keenan. "He's had a consistent 'A' game every night, which speaks volumes for his ability to prepare himself. Particularly when you are a star player, you know you're going to be checked every night."

Conroy chuckles at that idea.

"Teams are trying to shut him down. Every night they say, 'we've got to stop Jarome Iginla.' And every night he's got two goals. It's pretty impressive.

Consistency is what Iginla does best.

Only this season's goal-scoring leader, Ilya Kovalchuk, has potted more pucks than Iginla since 2001.

And the difference was two goals -- exactly the number by which Kovalchuk led Iginla in this season's race heading into last night's action.

No one else -- not Vincent Lecavalier, not Jaromir Jagr, not Joe Sakic, not even Daniel Alfredsson, Calgarian Dany Heatley or Marian Hossa -- is anywhere near the pace.

But what really separates Iginla from the rest is his leadership. No statistic can measure it, and not even a Hart Trophy can reward it. Only a Stanley Cup can do that.

Focused only on his own preparation during his spectacular 2001-02 season, Iginla now takes it upon himself to make sure the rest of his teammates are equally eager to go.

"It's fun to see him, how he's kind of evolved," said Conroy. "He does so much more with the young guys, trying to help them get ready. He used to just focus on himself getting ready for games. Now he does it for everybody. He tries to get the whole team in that mode.

"Whenever there's something that needs to be said, he's saying it. Whether we need a day off, the guys are a little tired, whatever it is, he really is there for the team. He wants to do what's best for the team."

That's the definition of the league's most valuable player. It's the heart that deserves the Hart.


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