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Calgary's roster bind helps derail bid for Division title

by Todd Kimberley
Michael Cammalleri was discussing spatial relationships in the Calgary Flames' dressing room at Edmonton's Rexall Place late Friday night.

"Usually this (visitors’) bench (stinks), because it's so tight," he was saying. "It's always shove left, shove right. Tonight, there were no problems.”

Well, check that. The Calgary Flames lost to province-rival Edmonton, 5-1, handing the keys to the Northwest Division penthouse to the Vancouver Canucks, who opened the door with Saturday's clinching win against Colorado.

But what will be remembered by Flames fans is the bizarre set of circumstances under which their team fell from potential division winner to visitors for the first game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which now will start for Calgary at Chicago's United Center on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN).

Enjoying a clean bill of health for the majority of the 2008-09 season, the Flames were suddenly struck by an alarming array of injuries during the final two weeks of the season. The injury plague became so taxing that the Flames were only able to dress 15 skaters in each leg of their season-ending, home-and-home against Edmonton. Hence, all the room Cammalleri was discussing on the Edmonton bench Friday night.

It wasn't just the final two games of the season that saw the Flames go undermanned, although they were the most trying. The Flames actually were unable to dress a full complement of 18 skaters for their final five regular-season games because of injuries and a salary-cap crunch that wouldn't facilitate call-ups to fill the holes.

Under terms of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, clubs are not allowed to place players on the Long-Term Injury list with nine or fewer games left in the regular season. LTI placement would have allowed Calgary to temporarily go over the cap while the injured players were out.

Without that relief mechanism, the Flames were too hard against the $56.7 million ceiling to call up reinforcements from their American Hockey League farm club in Quad Cities.

In early April, defenseman Cory Sarich had just been sidelined by blocking a Joe Thornton shot with his right instep, while defensemen Robyn Regehr (lower body) and Adrian Aucoin (upper body) had followed him to the trainer's room three days later in Dallas.

Although Aucoin only missed one game, former Norris Trophy finalist Dion Phaneuf (upper body) and speedy winger Curtis Glencross (undisclosed) were added to the injured list, joining Regehr, Sarich, defenseman Mark Giordano (shoulder) and winger Rene Bourque (ankle).

Phaneuf and Glencross are expected to be in the Game 1 lineup against Chicago, possibly Bourque as well. Regehr and Sarich are longer-term scenarios, but should make an appearance in the playoffs. Giordano is likely done for the season, as is forward Wayne Primeau.

The last time an NHL club was so shorthanded? Well, you need to go back nearly a quarter-century to Jan. 23, 1986, when the St. Louis Blues, minus three skaters, managed a 4-3 win against Los Angeles.

"It's definitely a unique situation," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said Saturday before playing in the season-ending game that night, a 4-1 victory against the Oilers. "Who could have foreseen all these injuries? And with the cap situation and stuff, it being so late (in the season), how do you ... it’s been kind of a freak thing.

"I think the last time I played in a situation like that was at the Atom age for the St. Albert (Alberta) Cougars,” Iginla said. “Emotionally, it's part of the challenge."

The Flames (46-30-6) limped to the finish line with a 7-11-0 record after March 5, falling to fifth in the Western Conference. The Canucks (45-27-10), who were 13 points behind the Flames at the end of January, finished 23-7-2 to overtake Calgary and earn the No. 3 slot in the West.

Flames General Manager Darryl Sutter knew he was taking a risk at the trade deadline, adding payroll by picking up Olli Jokinen from Phoenix and Jordan Leopold from Colorado, moves that left him very little wiggle room in regards to the salary cap.

"That's what we discussed … if we were going to go after guys  …  you have to be prepared for (the worst-case scenario) in the last two weeks,” Sutter said. “It became reality. Injuries are not good. You don't win with smoke and mirrors in this League. You win with good players. We're right on the edge of damage control with injuries."

Sutter made those comments to the Calgary Herald on April 3, when the Flames’ injury situation had yet to spiral completely out of control. Of course, other factors contributed to the Flames’ downward trend -- predominantly, a bone-dry offense.

Jokinen enters the playoffs without a goal since March 14. Cammalleri, who finally found his touch in the final weekend, went six games without a point during a pivotal stretch. Todd Bertuzzi hasn’t lit the lamp since March 1. Iginla has 6 points in 11 games, not exactly the production values expected from the perennial All-Star captain.

And the Flames’ power play enters the Stanley Cup Playoffs in an ice cold 0-for-43 slump, dating back 11 games.

Flames coach Mike Keenan discussed his club's "roster deficiency" without sympathy Saturday morning, before the final game.

"I don't consider this to be a major hardship," Keenan said.

That was the message emanating from the home dressing room, as well, on Saturday.

"As a professional athlete," said Aucoin, "I think all you can ask for is playing time, and I'm disappointed in the way they've responded; because I think it was a great opportunity for a lot of guys."

"I know there have been a lot of excuses lately," he continued, "and I'm not going to make any excuses. I think playing with a short roster is an opportunity for the players."

Craig Conroy added: "That's fun. That's more ice time. You've got to embrace it and run with it."

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