Pulling a fast one

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:30 PM ET


 The Calgary Flames want players who have three attributes. They're big. They're fast. And they're cheap.

 And if you can't get all three, take the last two.

 Exclude Jarome Iginla and backup goalie Roman Turek from the Calgary Flames payroll, and it's in the $28-million US range. So you know that most of their players come cheaply.

 But what a lot of people don't know -- and that often includes the people the Flames are playing -- is their incredible speed.

 This is a not just a team with a few fast players, it's a team with widespread, blazing speed -- even though two of its fastest players, Toni Lydman and Dean McAmmond, are out of the lineup with injuries as the Flames play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup final.

 Lydman, McAmmond and four others -- Shean Donovan, Oleg Saprykin, Andrew Ference and Martin Gelinas -- cracked the benchmark 14-second barrier for a circuit of the rink during the annual skills competition.

 But the Flames' speed doesn't stop there. Five others who almost certainly would be in that elite group didn't compete in the event -- Iginla, Chuck Kobasew, Ville Nieminen, Marcus Nilson and Craig Conroy.

 It's this speed that makes the Flames so difficult to play against -- as the three Western Conference divisional champions discovered this post-season.

 The Flames' primary use of their speed is to bottle up the opposition with a determined, high-pressure forecheck. Then when the turnovers come, the Flames use their speed to fly to the attack.

 Even on the penalty kill, the Flames use their speed to chase the puck. In the process, they have created numerous opportunities, three of which have resulted in short-handed goals.

 Throughout the playoffs, as the Lightning advanced, the talk was of its speed. And indeed, the Bolts have more than their share of fast players. But for some reason, the Flames' speed, which is even greater, didn't get the same degree of attention.

 In today's hockey, you can certainly win with speed -- as the Lightning has shown. But speed is relative. If the other team is even speedier, much of the magic is lost.

 "They've got some very speedy wingers and very speedy forwards," Ference said. "They like to throw pucks across the ice and get that guy flying. If you're not very aware at all times, they can catch you."

 But if you are aware, and if you can more than match them stride for stride, it's no great disadvantage. It is, as Ference said, "just an extra added responsibility."

 It's not easy to play a speed game on the sludge that passes for ice in Tampa. As Nieminen said yesterday: "Our team is sore (from Game 1) -- tired and sore. There is no mobility at all. It is really tough to skate on that."

 So on the days when the ice surface becomes a great leveller and the impact of speed is reduced, the Flames turn to tenacity. They have that, too.

 "We have a lot of fast players, just straight-out speed," Ference said. "But beyond our guys' natural ability to skate fast, what has helped our team out so much are the guys who aren't necessarily great straight-line skaters or aren't really speedy.

 "Look at a guy like Dave Lowry. He's not winning any races on our team, but he works his butt off. He doesn't stop moving his legs, and he keeps pumping. He's effective that way.

 "The guys who don't have that great natural speed on our team, they make it up and more with their determination to get on the forecheck, get on their guys quickly."

 In some earlier series -- the Montreal Canadiens against the Boston Bruins for example -- we saw size defeated by speed.

 If the Flames go on to defeat the Lightning, we'll see speed defeated by greater speed.


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