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Flames look for strong start in season-opener

by Staff Writer / Calgary Flames

CALGARY - The Philadelphia Flyers were the first NHL team Mike Keenan coached back in 1984 and they'll be the first team he faces in the 2007-08 regular season as head coach of the Calgary Flames.

The Flames open the season at home against the Flyers on Thursday (8 p.m. MT). When you've coached and managed in the NHL for 23 years and are on your eighth team, you're going to cross paths with your past a few times.

"History repeats itself quite often in the small-knit group of the National Hockey League," Keenan observed Wednesday at the Pengrowth Saddledome.

Current Flyers head coach John Stevens played for Keenan and general manager Paul Holmgren was his assistant coach in Philadelphia.

Those were heady days for the Flyers as they reached the Stanley Cup final twice in Keenan's first three seasons behind the bench.

That's in stark contrast to the worst record in franchise history and a dead-last finish in the NHL last season when coach Ken Hitchcock was fired and GM Bobby Clarke resigned on Oct. 22.

The Flyers beefed up their leadership in the off-season by acquiring three former team captains - forward Daniel Briere (Buffalo) and defencemen Jason Smith (Edmonton) and Kimmo Timonen (Nashville) - and made Smith their new captain. Briere also brings a desperately needed scoring touch.

"They're a vastly improved team over a year ago," Keenan said. "Paul Holmgren has done a good job re-tooling that team in one season and one off-season and they've been aggressive about it.

"They've put a good team together in a short period of time and I guess that's an example of what you can do in the NHL today."

The Flyers were 3-5 in the pre-season. The Flames were 1-7, although two of those losses were in a shootout.

Calgary ran a special power-play session prior to the start of Wednesday's practice. The Flames scored two goals on 34 chances a man up in their final four exhibition games.

"I think we'd be working on it at this point even if it was going well," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "In the pre-season, it wasn't setting up the way we like, so it's something we know we've got to fix quickly."

Veteran winger Owen Nolan had been hampered by a groin injury during training camp, but he participated in a full practice Wednesday and is expected to be in the lineup Thursday.

Flames goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff shouldn't have any rust Thursday as he appeared in four exhibition games.

"The preparation is important for him," Keenan said. "I think it was good to get some hard work early and get him up to speed and have him hone his game."

Calgary has been running interesting forward line combinations in practices this week, although it remains to be seen if Keenan retains them Thursday.

Craig Conroy centred a line with Alex Tanguay on the left and Iginla on the right. Daymond Langkow was between Kristian Huselius and Nolan on Wednesday, but had Matthew Lombardi on his right the previous day when Nolan was out.

The Flames have been guilty of bad Octobers the past two seasons and have had to dig themselves out of early-season holes. This pre-season hasn't boded well for Calgary.

"From the drop of the puck, if anything, we realize we need everybody and we need to be going to win games and it was a good wake-up call," Iginla said. "It's not like we breezed through it obviously."

The hope in Calgary is that a veteran coach like Keenan can get more out of a Flames lineup that is ripe in terms of age and talent to win a championship.

Keenan has pushed the pace in training camp and even told his assistant coaches to hustle in Wednesday's practice.

"It's been one of the harder training camps I've been through," Iginla said.

Added winger Alex Tanguay: "We're anxious for training camp to be over and practices to get a little shorter. If you win, things are much easier than if you don't, and hopefully we'll start it right."

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