Monday, March 17, 2008

The Unexpected: Calgary Flames

*NOTE*: I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now. Within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise. So far, I've I wrote about two of these clubs, the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers.

The Calgary Flames didn't start off with loads of potential going into the season, but with each passing game the club is finding their identity, one that got them into the Stanley Cup Finals a few years ago.

They began the year entrenched with inconsistency, frustration and false hope. Personally, I had them penciled out of the playoffs as soon the doom and gloom was in full effect. But one of the main reasons I think differently now is because of the way they're turning this ship around, and finding it within themselves to perform at a new level.

Bare with me when I predict such a thing as the Flames winning the Cup, because the gears aren't in full capacity yet, and the club has some questions to overcome. For one, while superstar goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is performing better in the last months, he needs to reestablish himself as one of the teams franchise players. He struggled from the get-go, posting one of the league's worst stats amongst goaltenders, but since then he has gone nowhere but upward, slowly displaying the skills that made him a coveted top 5 goaltender just last season. Being a big fan of "Kipper", I've always admired his concentration, sound positioning and ability to perform at new levels in big games -- something that has slipped from him a bit this season. However, things are beginning to look promising going into the playoffs, with a 5-2-2 record, 1.79 GAA, and a .948 SV% in his last 9 games, Kiprusoff is delivering the kind of goaltending that is required to win the Stanley Cup.

Perhaps the most integral part to any Flames success is that of Captain Jarome Iginla. The 30-year old, Alberta native is dominating the NHL this season, placing 3rd amongst forwards in points with 86 -- 44 of those being goals. His lethal shot, blazing speed and team character has not gone unnoticed, and he remains a fan favorite in Calgary for his efforts. In the 2003 NHL Playoffs, "Iggy" posted an impressive 13 goals and 22 points in 26 games. If the Flames want to make it that far again, Iginla will have to raise his game even more, further proving he is the ultimate leader for this team.

When speaking of impact players on the Flames, it's hard not to think of Alex Tanguay. While he has not enjoyed a productive season (16G, 52PTS), he is crucial to any kind of Stanley Cup run the Flames might embark on in April. His tremendous speed, soft hands, and creativity are what make him such a versatile playmaker. He has the potential to be the Flames second best forward, and if he can find his game, he will prove to be a valuable linemate to Iginla on the powerplay.

Kristian Huselius is adding to his break-out performance last year, the 29-year old has compiled 64 points and 24 goals this season, proving to be one of the Flames most reliable scorers. The fast, skillful playmaker showed his true potential in the 06-07 NHL campaign, where he garnered an impressive 77 points and 34 goals to end the season. If the Flames want balanced scoring, they can’t depend solely on Iginla, it's up to players like Huselius to form a reliable supporting cast.

As we all know, defense wins championships, and it all starts with Dion Phaneuf. He is a hitting machine, laying out any opponents that stand in his way. To go along with that, he possesses a big shot from the point that is capable of making him a consistent 20+ goal scorer in the NHL (he has already reached 20 goals in just his rookie season). What makes Phaneuf so special is that he is displays a remarkable two-way game for a young defenseman. While he is not perfect in his own end, he continues to improve and shows signs of becoming a Norris Trophy winner in the very near future.

Daymond Langkow is enjoying another productive season, scoring 27 goals and 60 points so far. While he lacks the consistency to be a true first line center, his two-way ability has made him a vital part to the second line. At 31 years old, Langkow implements some veteran presence to this Flames club, further stabilizing the conservative game that has brought much of the Flames success.

In Robyn Regehr, the Flames have their shut-down defenseman. Regehr displays a great hockey sense, defensive responsibility, an exemplary work ethic, and a big frame. While he is not a threat offensively, he has a fairly accurate point shot, making him more mobile in key situations. At 27-years old, Regehr will get better, and eventually establish himself as one of the game’s best defensive defenseman.

With this core intact, the Flames have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Playing at full potential, they can display the physical edge, balanced scoring and spectacular goaltending that it requires in the prolonged weeks ahead.