SUN Hockey Pool

Connie — come out and play!

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:34 AM ET

In the midst of the Calgary Flames’ sudden crisis down the middle, Craig Conroy admitted seeing the writing on the wall.

Well, the whiteboard, anyway.

“Rich wrote a workout for me on the board,” smiled the recently retired centreman of the regimen scribbled out by the club’s strength and conditioning coach, Rich Hesketh.

“Everybody’s been busting my chops. All of em. I’ve been riding the bike ever since I retired because they told me I’d get fat. But ya know, it’s safer up here — you can’t get hit by a puck.”

No one else patrolling the middle in Calgary seems safe these days following a knee injury to top line centre Brendan Morrison followed by an ankle injury to his replacement, David Moss, during Monday’s practice.

While Brent Sutter spent Tuesday figuring out who would try filling the void between Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, diehards logging on to Fan 960’s website voted on their choice.

Despite the fact it was impossible to bring the 39-year-old out of retirement due to the fact the Flames already have the maximum 50 players under contract, Conroy garnered 34% of the vote, edged only by the man who actually got the gig, Mikael Backlund.

And while a 4-3 loss to the Coyotes Tuesday night will suggest otherwise, the kid was alright. Damn good actually.

Asked simply to be diligent in his own end so Tanguay and Iginla could focus more on what they’re so desperately counted on to do — score — Backlund didn’t disappoint. In his more than 18 minutes of ice time he asserted himself well, belying a minus-2 stat that is, as usual, misleading.

In fact, he was also a force offensively.

Not only did he score his ninth of the season early in the third to bring the Flames within two, he rattled a slapper off the post in the second and helped Iginla and promoted winger Glencross create several good scoring chances.

With Brent Sutter doing his best to keep the fourth unit of Brett Carson, Niklas Hagman and Lance Bouma off the ice, he rolled out several different looks using his top nine forwards. By the second period, he had Tanguay playing with second-liners Rene Bourque and Olli Jokinen. Sutter’s hunch paid off midway through the third when Tanguay brought the locals within one.

By the final horn the difference in the game was a pair of bad deflections eluding Miikka Kiprusoff and putting the Coyotes up four points on the eighth-place Flames.

A devastating loss.

Lord knows I never thought I’d write this but “help” comes in the form of Ales Kotalik Wednesday, assuming he clears waivers.

Conroy, who has spent plenty of time watching the farm club in Abbotsford as the Flames special assistant to the GM, says Kotalik has been — by far — the best player there since his demotion with four goals and 15 assists in 18 outings. More importantly, his attitude is apparently great as he readies for his last kick at the NHL can before this summer’s buyout.

While hindsight is 20-20 and the city seemed thankful to be able to give Conroy the retirement sendoff he so richly deserved, one has to wonder if Jay Feaster erred in guiding Conroy towards retirement Feb 4. Surely he better fit the bill as the “depth forward” the club sought at the deadline, settling instead for the chronically injured Freddy Modin whose back has already given out on him.

Then again, the coaches had long ago determined Conroy couldn’t contribute. Still, one wonders if he might have just been the perfect tonic, costing the club the league minimum and no draft picks, as Modin did (seventh).

It’s all a moot point as Conroy’s playing career is over and the biggest opportunity of Backlund’s young career has been presented.

His response so far has been admirable, but it will take more than that for this team to get back on track in time to make the playoffs.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ericfrancis

Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada


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