'Dogged by stretch fade

Mike Keenan doesn't mind being the underdog in the Flames' playoff series against the Blackhawks....

Mike Keenan doesn't mind being the underdog in the Flames' playoff series against the Blackhawks. (Sun Media/Darren Makowichuk)

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

One month after allegations of elite status were proven hideously false, Mike Keenan was asked yesterday if his club's fall from grace has since seen the squad downgraded to first-round underdogs.

"Umm ... good question," said the rather pensive Flames coach, genuinely perplexed by the query.

"Depends who you're talking to..."

When informed it was his opinion being sought, he came clean.

"I suppose we are the underdogs because we didn't end up with as many points as they did."

He really believes that?

"I didn't say that," he smiled again.

For a team that briefly threatened to challenge the Detroit Red Wings in the standings just last month, there's been quite an attitude adjustment 'round these parts following a 7-11 finish that saw the Flames choke up the NHL's Northwest Division and fall to fifth in the conference.

Opening the playoffs in Chicago where the young, fourth-ranked Blackhawks are poised to make their first playoff appearance since 2002, the Flames will limp into the post-season with second-rate status. Even on a day when Rene Bourque and Dion Phaneuf announced they will return to a lineup that recently included just 15 skaters, the Flames had to admit they're not the favourite -- whether they believe it or not.

"Hey, I don't blame people on the outside who say that -- Chicago had more points, they beat us all four times and they've got home ice, so we're the underdogs," said Flames veteran Craig Conroy, smiling as he made the submission. "We believe we can beat anybody, but definitely it looks like they have the advantage going in. But this is the playoffs, and anything can happen."

Pressed further, the cagey vet embraced the new status.

"I think in '04 I liked that opinion for three rounds, and then they picked us to win in the fourth, and we didn't," said Conroy with a chuckle of the club's unlikely Stanley Cup run. "So, maybe, this is the way to go."

Apparently so, agreed Eric Nystrom, even though both teams had 46 wins.

"That's great -- we'll be the underdog all day. If they're the favourites, all the pressure is on them," said Nystrom, who drew the line at those suggesting his club had little hope.

"Maybe we haven't played our best hockey lately, but this is a good team. If anybody is saying otherwise, they obviously don't know much about the game. It's the best team I've been on and the best team here in a long time."

Not to be mistaken for the type of defeatist attitude many fans have adopted due to the club's injury-aided freefall, the feeling in the room is instead one of quiet confidence.

"I think two months ago everyone was, 'Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup,' " said Flames tough-guy Andre Roy, who also returned to practice yesterday. "We gave up our division lead to Vancouver, and everybody's not as sure any more. It's the same guys that did it. I think we're going to be a dangerous team to play."

So does Mike Cammalleri.

"Maybe a couple years ago, I would've allowed something like that to anger me, but in this business, people will have opinions and they're entitled to that," said Cammalleri, whose club hasn't scored a powerplay goal in 10 games.

"If people want to call it that and give us the underdog tag, well ... then that's fine. I don't think we feel that way in this room, and I don't think we'll play that way. We're not too worried about it. It's more for (the media) to debate and for fans to fire emails at you guys about."

Jarome Iginla has gone on the record saying the underdog label is inaccurate, but others aren't saying that.

"Obviously, losing a (13-point) lead in the division was a pretty big collapse," said Bourque, returning to practice on the top line just in time to face his former club.

"They beat us pretty good three times. They're a good young team, but playoffs are a different story. We have a lot of experience on our team, and hopefully that will come into play and make a difference in the series."


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