Matt's coming-out 'bardi?

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 7:43 AM ET

Sleeping hasn't come easily for Matthew Lombardi recently.

It has nothing to do with anything others are saying about the 26-year-old Calgary Flames centre. It's all about his own excitement over the upcoming season.

"I'm excited. I'm really excited. The last couple of weeks, I've been real anxious, I guess you could say, to get back going," said Lombardi, whose name comes up often in discussions about this year's version of the Flames.

"I don't know what everyone's been saying -- I don't really care -- I just expect a lot from myself. I want to get better and be a big part of the team."

Pencilled in as the second-line centre, Lombardi is being counted on to have a bigger offensive impact than he has had in four teasing seasons during which he has shown flashes of stardom mixed with moments of mediocrity.

He forced people to take notice of his talent as a rookie, posting 16 goals and 29 points in 79 games in 2003-04.

A vicious shot to the head in the playoffs kept him out of hockey for more than a year, and a high ankle sprain limited him after the lockout, but he netted six goals and 26 points in 55 games in 2005-06.

Breaking out for 20 goals and 46 points the following year, Lombardi looked ready for a benchmark season, but battled nagging injuries all year and finished with 14 goals and 22 assists despite playing every game in 2007-08.

His captain thinks Lombardi's ready to take his game to another level.

"I think he's ready to have a breakout season. He's had good years, but I think he's ready for a breakout season. He looks awesome," Jarome Iginla said of the speedy centre. "Confidence is a big part of it for all of us as players. Each year you get another year under your belt, you feel better coming back."

With Swede Mikael Backlund knocking on the NHL's door, and Dustin Boyd also capable of playing the middle, Lombardi's best chance to make that transition to top-six forward has arrived.

"Lombo has to take that spot now," said Flames GM Darryl Sutter. "Connie (Craig Conroy) is clearly our number three guy -- and one of the best in the league, if we had to pick number-three guys, he's a pretty good guy -- and now it's Lombo's turn to fight with guys maybe younger than him to see if he can get that spot."

Although Backlund practised with newcomers Mike Cammalleri and Rene Bourque yesterday as the Flames continue to give the 19-year-old every opportunity to force their hand and keep him here, Lombardi has been mentioned a few times by management and coaches as a player they expect to make strides.

Head coach Mike Keenan says he expects each of his players to be better as he enters his second season behind the bench. He saw potential in Lombardi a year ago.

"I think he grew last year. He took on greater responsibilities as the year went on," said Keenan, pointing out Lombardi's penalty killing as an example. "He has to step up and give us that skill and take it to a new level."

Looking more trim and fit than ever is a result of Lombardi trying to get even quicker and more agile. With his excitement comes expectations of himself -- goals he's not willing to share, but assures are in his thoughts.

"I'm not one to make them public, what I've set for myself, but it's good to have goals," Lombardi said. "In my mind, I know what I want to do and it's just a matter of going out there and performing and doing it."


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