Flame-killer should have faithful fans worried

ERIC FRANCIS

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

After more than a month of setbacks, the Calgary Flames got more bad news yesterday.

No, nobody else got hurt.

However, while sitting at home recovering from an embarrassing collapse that cost them the Northwest Division and home-ice advantage, you can bet the players paid close attention to their first-round opponents in action against Detroit.

And while the game meant nothing to either team, a rather stunning stat likely resonated with the Flames: 37 saves.

That's how many times habitual Flame-killer Nikolai Khabibulin turned away the most potent offence in the NHL.

It's a daunting sign the man who stood between Calgary and its second Stanley Cup in the 2004 final is poised to once again dominate.

Going 3-0 against Calgary this year to run his career record against the Flames to a mind-numbing 22-5-2, Khabibulin's mastery dates back to his days as a Winnipeg Jet.

On the long list of reasons why the Flames will be given little chance by most to upset the Chicago Black Hawks, the 'Bulin Wall is at the top.

Given their injuries, struggles down the stretch and the fact they were outscored by Chicago 19-7 this season, the Flames have given little reason to believe their fortunes against Khabibulin are about to change any time soon.

Coming off one of the best seasons of his career, (shocker, as he needs a contract next year) the 36-year-old Russian went 25-8-7 with a 2.33 goals-against average.

While the Flames puked their way to a 3-4 finish, the Hawks went 6-0-1.

Bad news, indeed.

The irony is that many Flames fans have clung to the hope their goaltender can be the difference in the series.

If anyone is poised to steal the series, it's Khabibulin.

Now more notes, quotes and anecdotes from a sports world that has to have noticed the Stamps are Grey Cup champs, the Hitmen are the nation's top junior squad, the Roughnecks are the toast of the lacrosse world and the Flames, well, we'll see.

AROUND THE HORN

Flames callup John Negrin on the tail end of a whirlwind week that has seem him shuttled back and forth between the WHL, AHL and the NHL: "They tell me to hop on a plane and sometimes I don't know where it's going." ... While unfortunate the Flames had to play several of the most important games of the season two and three men short due to cap space and injuries, don't rip GM Darryl Sutter for it. Landing Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline was worth the gamble and still may pay off if the Flames are to shock the masses and do some damage this spring. That said, there is indeed egg on Sutter's face for scoffing at media types who wondered how he made the deal fit into the cap in the first place. His words at the time, "It's not even close -- you guys have no idea." Word is the Flames were within hundreds of dollars of the US$56.7 million salary cap.

PARTING GIFTS

Did anyone see who won the Masters yesterday? I turned it off after Tiger and America's favourite Pusher finished. Admit it, you felt like doing the same -- and probably wish you did ... Things you'll never hear at the Dome, No. 322: "Why didn't Nystrom block that shot?" ... U.S. ski stud Bode Miller told HBO's Real Sports he likely won't compete at the Whistler Games in 2010 following a performance in Turin where he spent most of his time partying. "Right now, I feel like it would be a terrible decision," he said. "The least that I'll deal with is the whole thing from '06 again. You're set up for misery. What would be the point? A gold medal is going to mean nothing to me. It devalues so much that I've already done and adds nothing."

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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