No pressure, no problem?

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 6:12 AM ET

A school of thought exists among Calgary Flames fans this team is better off being an underdog.

No (April Fool's) joking.

After seeing how poorly the Flames handled being a favourite the last five weeks, there may be some validity to the theory this squad fares better when needing to defy the odds and silence the critics as opposed to being a front-runner.

At least, it is something for the faithful to hang on to.

We're going to find out over the next nine days whether it's plausible or just wishful thinking. Because right now, they're being written off as also-rans in many NHL corners.

Certainly, the Flames no longer have NHL followers as wary of them as they were a couple of months ago.

Not after struggling through all of March -- losing nine of 15 and eight of their last 12 -- to see a healthy lead on the Northwest Division crumble and become the one-point deficit they have to the Vancouver Canucks heading into tonight's action.

It's funny to hear the same people who were singing their praises a couple of months ago now scoffing at the notion of a playoff run.

Rest assured, the Flames know all too well they're being called choke artists.

They're aware pundits look at them as first-round playoff fodder, a once-strong team that will be easy pickings in the playoffs -- akin to the Ottawa Senators a year ago.

Frankly, they haven't done much to disprove the detractors of late.

Or have they?

Amidst the last few games of their tailspin -- three losses in four outings -- you could see a major sign a turnaround is just around the corner. All season, it's been evident the Flames are no longer the shut-the-door defensive team of 2004 or the first season after the lockout.

But since returning from that long road trip, they have been much better, save for that 5-0 debacle in Columbus. They beat Dallas 2-1.

Their 3-2 loss to St. Louis was the result of two goals 51 seconds apart. In the 5-3 win over Detroit, the Red Wings came great guns in the final 10 minutes. Until then, the Flames controlled the play.

The 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh was the result of a blowing all kinds of powerplay chances, strong goaltending from Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and timely goals on the opposition's few chances.

Against Minnesota, a 3-2 victory, the Wild were held to 15 shots. In the 2-1 loss to San Jose -- and we know the Sharks were missing quite a few key pieces -- the shot clock read 29-17 in Calgary's favour. Those are huge steps forward from the swiss-cheese defence against teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay earlier.

Does it mean the Flames are about to win tonight and start a six-game winning spree to end the regular season atop the Northwest and go into the playoffs on a high?

Not likely. But it's possible.

We've seen it before. Think back to those solid runs last time the Flames were written off. They responded like a finely tuned machine.

Sure, they weren't like the Ferraris we see in San Jose, Detroit and Boston, but looking pretty good -- like a speedy Lotus.

Certainly, they were ripping around the track better than most everybody else.

The key was strong defence. Eventually, the offensive attack will return. So will the powerplay, which has never looked good this season but, over the long-term, been effective.

So, write off the Flames if you must. It may be at your peril. They no longer have the weight of expectations upon their shoulders.

Just how they probably like it.

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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