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About six weeks ago, you would have looked at the Calgary Flames as one of those teams that had the wherewithal to knock off one of the Western Conference's twin juggernauts, Detroit or San Jose. The Flames boasted veteran experience, quality goaltending, toughness and skill.
But as the Flames choked up a huge lead in the Northwest Division and fell to fifth in the conference during the last week of the regular season, they now look like an emotionally fragile team afraid of its own shadow and couldn't beat its way out of a wet paper bag. In fact, is there a worse team in the West playoff bracket at the moment? No.
About six weeks ago, you might have suggested it was the Chicago Blackhawks that hit the wall and were going to be easy playoff pickings. Instead, the youthful Hawks got healthy and netminder Nikolai Khabibulin got good, and they started to roll as they did through the first half of the season.
Under the steadying hand of veteran coach Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks put it all together down the stretch and went 6-0-1 in April and are 9-2-1 since March 22. Chicago returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with an emphatic sweep of defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit in a home-and-home series during the final weekend of the regular season.
1. Mojo or no-go? Remember how excited everyone was when the Flames acquired big center Olli Jokinen from Phoenix at the trade deadline? Remember how he lit it up with eight goals in his first six games with the Flames? Well, the man who will play in his first playoff game has gone 13 straight games without a goal and has been a plus-rated player just three times over that stretch. Remember how nicely Jokinen clicked with captain Jarome Iginla? Well, that relationship has gone cold, too. If it doesn't warm up in a hurry, the Flames will be out in the first round for the fourth straight time since they went to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals.
2. The M.A.S.H. factor. Now, one of the reasons the Flames may have fallen off the map in the final stretches of this season was their spate of crippling injuries, mostly along the blue line. That, and the fact GM Darryl Sutter put his team so tight to the salary cap, it couldn't bring up players from the AHL to fill in. Regardless of the cap issues that forced the Flames to play short-handed for much of the last couple of weeks, they have been missing some major helpers on the back end, including Dion Phaneuf who missed the final two games of the season. Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr also missed time down the stretch and their availability and/or overall health is unknown heading into the playoffs. That's not taking into account useful defenseman Mark Giordano, who will miss the rest of the season.
Up front, Curtis Glencross is still out with a leg injury and Rene Bourque, a former Blackhawk, is hoping to be back for the postseason, which would be a huge boost for the Flames. On the other side of the ice, the Blackhawks are pretty much healthy with Patrick Sharp expected back for Game 1. Khabibulin, who has put some late-season bumps and bruises behind him, recorded shutouts in two of his last four starts. His continued health will be crucial to Chicago's playoff hopes, although it's nice to know you have a more than viable Plan B in Cristobal Huet.
3. "The Kids Are Alright." Sorry to keep revisiting the old Who album title, but if there ever was a team that it fits, it's the Blackhawks. There are just five skaters in their lineup who are 27 or older. As for Stanley Cup rings, Khabibulin, Andrew Ladd and Samuel Pahlsson are the only ones who've won it all. Quenneville, who earned a ring as an assistant in Colorado back in 1996, told us earlier this season he thinks there is a way for youthful enthusiasm to overcome playoff inexperience.The Blackhawks have received impressive contributions, not just from the obvious peach-fuzzed players Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but also rookie Kris Versteeg (22 goals), impressive young center Dave Bolland and hard-hitting defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. But as we saw with the Pittsburgh Penguins when they were dominated by a veteran Ottawa team in five games two seasons ago, sometimes the only way to learn on this stage is to get knocked off it. We're about to find out whether the Hawks will follow that pattern or chart their own course.
4. Home and away. The Blackhawks weren't necessarily dominant at the United Center this season, but they did go 6-1-2 at home to close out the campaign. And the Hawks' first home playoff game since 2002 promises to be an event. A really loud event. So, the first two games of this series will be as much about managing the crowd as it will be managing the Hawks. On the flip side, the Blackhawks have managed to play well on the road; only Detroit had more road wins in the conference and scored more goals away from home. And the Flames? Well, let's just say this is a team that gets easily flummoxed away from the Saddledome. The Flames were 2-9-0 in their last 11 road games, and it's not going to get any easier in the playoffs.
5. Kipper, where art thou? Not that all of the Flames' many problems can be laid at the pads of the once-upon-a-time all-world netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, but let's be honest, Kiprusoff has been the epitome of ordinary for much of this season (he was 32nd in save percentage and 34th in goals-against average). For the second season in a row, Kiprusoff appeared in 76 games. At some point, doesn't someone have to stand up and say maybe this isn't such a good thing for the 32-year-old? It's too late now to wonder such things, especially given that Kiprusoff got the hook from coach Mike Keenan in a crucial loss to Edmonton on Friday and sat him for Saturday's season finale. If Khabibulin plays at all like he did down the stretch, Kiprusoff better channel his old self in a hurry, or this will be another summer of unpleasant questions about the Finn's future in Calgary.