Shot at Cup shrinking for Flames veterans

Iginla's back troubles in training camp could be a sign of things to come, which only makes it more...

Iginla's back troubles in training camp could be a sign of things to come, which only makes it more important the Flames get off to a quick start this season in an effort to end the two-year playoff drought. (MIKE DREW/QMI Agency)

STEVE MACFARLANE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:21 AM ET

CALGARY - With the puck dropping on a new NHL season, the Calgary Flames consider themselves a playoff contender.

They're hoping to start the season the way they played much of the second half of last year, and that the minor tweaks made in the off-season make them better.

That's the hope, anyway.

The reality is this team's window to win it all has been closing for years, and stars Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff may barely fit through the gap anymore.

That pair -- star sniper and stud goaltender -- are the keys to Flames success.

Both, however, are moving toward the point where their ages are rounded up to 40 rather than 30.

Iginla's back troubles in training camp could be a sign of things to come, which only makes it more important the Flames get off to a quick start this season in an effort to end the two-year playoff drought.

But inside the locker-room, players see a lot more than just their aforementioned stars.

"When people from the outside, the so-called analysts or experts, look at our team, they see Miikka, they see Jarome," said winger Alex Tanguay, who signed a five-year extension in the spring to become a part of the team's core group.

"But if you look up and down our lineup, with Rene Bourque, (Olli) Jokinen, (Niklas) Hagman, Lee Stempniak, David Moss ... we've got size, we've got speed, we've got guys that are able to put points on the board and to do well offensively."

This is where the balancing act begins.

Head coach Brent Sutter wants his team to score, but not at the cost of giving up odd-man rushes and goals against. In the past, there's been a tendency to get a little loose defensively when the focus shifts to offence.

"The best way to play defence is with the puck," said Tanguay. "With the size that we have, the speed that we have, we have to be able to hold onto pucks in the corner, be able to make the decision not to throw the puck away, and play that type of intelligent game where it's going to be hard for the other team to get the puck."

When the season is over, whatever the final results may be, the Flames want that to be their identity -- a puck-possession team capable of winning both the lopsided and tight games.

"First and foremost, we've got to be a hard-working team," said defenceman Mark Giordano, who offers the same puck-hog philosophy as Tanguay but suggests the best offence is a good defence instead of the other way around.

"Honestly, you get good results offensively when you play well defensively. You get more chances," said the blueliner. "If we're good in our own zone, and sharp, it makes it easier to get into the play and jump in and go as a five-man unit.

"I think we have a good group this year on the back end being able to carry the puck, hold the puck and make plays.

"It's exciting."

Despite all the frustration surrounding the Flames over the past couple of seasons, there is reason to be optimistic. With Iginla, Tanguay, Bourque, Stempniak, Moss and Curtis Glencross centred by the likes of Mikael Backlund, Jokinen, Brendan Morrison, Matt Stajan and rookie Roman Horak, there is scoring depth.

An apparently re-focused Niklas Hagman is also in the mix, and Tim Jackman is capable of providing mismatches against another teams' fourth line and third defensive pairing.

"Looking at the board on a game day, for the other third pairing, it's going to be a really good line up there," Giordano said. "That's what we need, scoring from every line. We can't just rely on Iggy and Tangs and Backs to be the scoring line.

"We need everyone to chip in."

Without Robyn Regehr on the blueline, the defence has a different look and attitude.

Whether that turns out to be beneficial remains to be seen. But they're a relatively mobile group comprised of Giordano, Jay Bouwmeester, Chris Butler, Anton Babchuk and your more physical Cory Sarich and Scott Hannan.

As a group, the team knows it has to be better in its own zone.

"Defensively, we've got some fixing up to do," said Tanguay.

"Especially on our penalty kill. Our defensive zone needs to be better."

But Tanguay is confident. He says the entire team is.

"The way we played last year after Christmas, the way we found that consistency was by desperation. We knew we had to win," he said. "We need to be desperate.

"We need to be hungry for pucks, we need to be the more desperate team out there like we were last year after Christmas.

"We're going to have to fight extremely hard to get to the playoffs."


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