SUN Hockey Pool

Flames' rocky road

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:57 PM ET

We should have known from the final buzzer of the opening game of the Calgary Flames season it was going to be a rocky one.

Being shut out by the Edmonton Oilers in the debut is a bad omen.

No one, though, could have guessed there would be so many ups and downs along the way.

Not just for the fans — who, aside from a few die-hard optimists, were collectively counting out the club (along with those pessimistic media members) before Christmas — but especially for the players.

It’s a rarity for those being paid to play the game to be asking outsiders what they think is going to happen during a season.

But that happened in the Flames locker-room more than once during a campaign as unforgettable for its disappointing start as its remarkable run that ultimately left them just short of making the playoffs.

After being shut out 4-0 by the Oilers in Edmonton in the season-opener and falling 3-0 to the Florida Panthers at the Saddledome just two games later, the first feelings of serious tension filled a practice at the Westside Recreation Centre.

GM Darryl Sutter lurked, and head coach Brent Sutter wondered how a pre-season that went so well translated into such an awful start in October.

The players and the coaches were not on the same page, leading to an hour-long meeting that left little time for actual practise. Questions didn’t reveal a whole lot as to what was said, but things improved for a couple of weeks.

Then they fell apart in November and December.

By the time the Flames headed to California for back-to-back games Dec. 9 and 10 against the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, the players were the ones asking the questions. They wondered aloud whether the head coach was on the brink of being banished by his brother.

Those rumblings grew louder when the Flames dropped games to the Minnesota Wild and another to the Columbus Blue Jackets right before Christmas — which was probably the lowest point of the entire season before their official elimination this week.

More questions came from the players themselves. Would the team really consider trading stars Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff?

Much as they believed that was unlikely, they, too, bought into the rumour mill that churns for change when things are going wrong.

One of the highest points of the year took place in the last game before the holidays. Alex Tanguay scored in the dying minute of a game in Dallas Dec. 23 then scored the shootout winner to give the group a good feeling before Christmas break.

It was a sure of adrenalin that apparently carried them through the next few months.

But first the rollercoaster bottomed out again when Darryl Sutter was asked to resign Dec. 28.

The year spanned the depths of disappointment — the Flames taking a turn in the Western Conference cellar, an off-ice assault charge filed against Brett Sutter (who was traded soon-after) in Phoenix, the forced resignation of the GM, the rare Kiprusoff slump, the mid-season demotion and retirement of Craig Conroy, and their fair share of lopsided losses and heartbreaking collapses.

It also featured some incredibly uplifting moments.

Conroy’s 1,00th game, Jarome Iginla’s 1,000th point, locking up defenceman Mark Giordano long-term, a big win in the Heritage Classic, a one-punch knockout from Tom Kostopoulos against the Canucks during an emotional win against their rival.

And most of all, a successful climb in the standings that brought them right back into the playoff race.

They were finally putting up a fight.

Iginla turned his season around and started scoring regularly, cracking the 40-goal plateau in the final week.

Kiprusoff shook off his tough stretch and became the ever-reliable go-to guy again.

Sadly, the way the rollercoaster season will be remembered was decided in the last few days — as a second straight the Flames will be spectators for the playoffs.


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