SUN Hockey Pool

Flames play down hopes

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

The Calgary Flames may look like champions, last night's aberration aside. They might feel like champions. You just won't catch them talking like champions.

Ask them, and the Flames aren't putting themselves in the same class as the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks.

"We'll see how good (we) are at the end of the year," Flames head coach Mike Keenan said yesterday. But it is evident that behind the cautious phrasing, a lot of guys wearing red and gold believe that come spring, they could be hugging Stanley.

This week, trailing the mighty Red Wings 4-1, they rallied behind newly acquired Olli Jokinen. Earlier, they handed the seemingly invincible Sharks their first home-ice loss. They sit third in the Western Conference, have overcome injuries and, last night, made a 3-0 deficit to the Leafs disappear.

"For us (the road to the Stanley Cup) is going to have to go through at least one of them: Detroit's always up there; San Jose beat us last year in the playoffs," Jarome Iginla said. "We've had some great games against them this year. We respect them but we can play with them, for sure."

If anyone would recognize a champion it should be head coach Mike Keenan. He has won more games as an NHL coach -- he had been looking for his 667th last night -- than anyone not named Bowman, Arbour or Dick Irvin.

Does the addition of Jokinen, who opened the Calgary scoring last night with his sixth goal in six games, and blueliner Jordan Leopold, put them into the same class as Keenan's Cup champion New York Rangers?

"I can only evaluate that question when I see what the results are at the end of the season. This team is developing," said Keenan, deflecting the question like Miikka Kiprusoff flicking aside a point shot.

"We've had major injuries. It's a team that's evolving. The dynamics have changed with Leopold and Jokinen coming in ... that's part of the building process. Different players evolving with each other under different pressures, different expectations."

Iginla has 30-plus goals for the eighth consecutive season. The difference is better guys are riding shotgun. Everyone points to Jokinen.

Overlooked are players such as Craig Conroy: Only nine goals, but a team-best plus 19. Yesterday, media clamored around Mike Cammalleri, team leader in goals -- but Curtis Glencross has visited the scoresheet just as often the past four games. His screen in front of Martin Gerber resulted in one goal last night; then he tied it 3-3 before the first period ended.

"Your best players have to do their jobs and your role players have to be very good at what they do," Keenan said. "A good team is made up of components of players who accept their role, do their role well. Make contributions. There's no star in this league who can carry a team because the teams are too well-balanced. You need a collection of people."

DIFFERENT KEENAN

Jokinen may be the closest thing to a difference maker. Still, when he played for Keenan in Florida it never translated into a single playoff appearance. But this is a different team, maybe even a different Keenan: "We weren't winning ... let's just say he doesn't yell as much, now," Jokinen said, laughing. "He hasn't changed much on the bench but he maybe isn't as vocal in the dressing room. The thing here is that anytime you put this jersey on you're expected to play hard; his expectations are high. That hasn't changed."

Jokinen and Keenan fit together like an easy chair and a warm, fuzzy blanket on a winter night. "Maybe it's because where I come from a lot of the coaches were like him. They demand a lot; give you feedback right away, they challenge you and as a player sometimes you need that little kick in your butt. It works for me; it works for a lot of guys in here."

Asked if, indeed, he has morphed from the Mercurial Mike who barged onto the NHL horizon in 1984, Keenan laughs: "God, I hope so. You'd hope to learn something ... (I'm) a little more patient. Hopefully."

Chance is, sometime between now and June, someone in Detroit or San Jose will put that imperturbability to its ultimate test.


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