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(TIM SHARP)
(TIM SHARP)

Eric Duhatschek

Tough times for Alberta's NHL representatives Add to ...

Once upon a time, a trip into Alberta's two hockey outposts represented a journey into Death Valley for luckless NHL opponents. Those were the dynasty days up in Edmonton, featuring Wayne Gretzky and the rest of the Oilers. Forced by the level of the competition to keep up, the Calgary Flames eventually became an NHL power, too. For a seven-year period between 1983 and 1990, one or the other qualified for the Stanley Cup final every single season. Teams left Alberta with wind burn thanks to the speed-of-sound Oilers and bumps and bruises thanks to the physical Flames.

Ah, the good old days.

Even in the current age of parity, there was a flicker of life for both Calgary and Edmonton, which made trips to the seventh game of the 2004 and 2006 Stanley Cup finals, respectively.

But now? In the immediate aftermath of Black Monday - a night in which the two Alberta teams combined to get clobbered 15-1 by the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche - the only thing they share in common is the experience of being an NHL punching bag.

That's been going for some time in Edmonton, which is 1-13-1 in its past 15 games. Heading into last night's NHL schedule, the Oilers were in 15th place in the Western Conference, 10 points out 14th and 20 out of the final playoff spot. Their fate is sealed.

The only race worth monitoring there is the one between the Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes for the right to draft Taylor Hall first in the June entry that - a consolation prize of some note. The Oilers, at least, can offer a reasonable excuse. They've been plagued by injuries and their talent level was only so-so to begin with. Without their top goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and their perennial scoring leader Ales Hemsky, they are too young and too small and too error-prone to compete this year.

Calgary, by contrast, has been extraordinarily healthy.

In a year when virtually every NHL team has had to deal with significant injuries to important players, most of the ones that are supposed to make a difference in Calgary - Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr - have been available every night. Bouwmeester's signing a day before free agency began last summer was supposed to solidify one of the deepest defence corps in the NHL, and give Calgary the identity it lacked under coach Mike Keenan, who was punted to the curb after successive first-round exits at the hands of the Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks.

At the moment, those seem like the glory days. The structure that Brent Sutter was supposed to bring to the team was nowhere to be seen on Monday in San Jose in its 9-1 loss, which left the them seventh in the West standings, but ninth on a percentage basis, behind both the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings.

Calgary was supposed to challenge for a top-four playoff seed. At the moment, its place in the playoff picture is in jeopardy.

Kiprusoff had a rare off night against the Sharks. Most of the time the Flames have won this season, they did so because of his strong play in goal. Of late, there has been a shocking lack of scoring from the six players who began the year on the top two lines - Iginla, Jokinen, David Moss, Rene Bourque, Nigel Dawes and Daymond Langkow. Of the six, only Bourque has contributed consistently. Iginla has gone eight games without a goal, Dawes 16. Jokinen has three in his past 19, Langkow one in 17, Moss one in 21 (and is now out with a lower-body injury).

So the answer to the question - what's wrong with Calgary? - can be answered in a single one word: everything. They can't score, and in the past two games, they couldn't defend either (14 goals against). They are among the bottom five in the NHL in shots taken and the power play has slipped to 28th overall. The players look fragile and their confidence is in tatters. They look physically whipped by a schedule in which they've played 14 games since the Christmas break. Back then, they had games in hand on every team in the West except the St. Louis Blues. Now, they've played more games than every team but the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Yesterday, after flying home from San Jose, they congregated at the Pengrowth Saddledome in the early afternoon to review the Sharks' debacle.

Most of the answers were variations on the same theme - that this represents rock bottom and that they can only get better from here. Iginla was unusually subdued and used a series of strong terms to describe the team's play Monday. The Flames were "completely embarrassed" by the Sharks. They were also "humiliated" and "terrible." Eventually, Iginla acknowledged it might have been the worst beating he'd been part of since joining the team in 1996.

The good news is that in the next seven days, the Flames play just once - tomorrow against the Blackhawks, a team that generally runs roughshod over them these days. Then they are off again until the following Monday when the Blues come to town.

From there until the Olympic break, there isn't an elite opponent on the horizon, so the chance to regroup first and then make up ground is there for the taking, provided that the scorers begin to score again, the checkers learn to check again and Kiprusoff doesn't wear out through overuse.

"It doesn't look good today and I can understand why some people might be down," Iginla said. "But we're not quitting and we're going to find a way to get going and get better."

Brave - and probably - predictable words from the team's struggling captain. Time will tell if, or when, they translate into action.

 

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