CALGARY - The Flames know from hard experience they can't wait until the second half of the NHL season to start a playoff push.
Calgary's 25-11-9 record last season after general manager Darryl Sutter was asked to resign Dec. 28 made them one of the hottest teams in the league from January to mid-March.
But the Flames fell short of the post-season for a second straight year despite a 41-29-12 record. Calgary finished 10th in the Western Conference and three points out of a berth.
"That's going to be the big question," forward Brendan Morrison said Friday at the Scotiabank Saddledome. "Can we start the season the way we finished? We have every intention of doing that.
"You can't get behind the 8-ball early on. It's too difficult to play catch-up. We're a prime example. Last year I think we had one of the top-three records in the league in the second half and we still didn't get in. You've got have a good start."
The Flames arrived at the Saddledome throughout Friday for physical testing and get on the ice Saturday to kick off the 2011-12 season.
Calgary was 16-18-3 when Sutter stepped down, largely due to special teams that ranked in the bottom third of the NHL, as well as a 6-11-3 road record.
"Early on in the season, special teams win games. It's simple as that," Morrison said. "Your power play can win you a game, your penalty kill can win you games. It takes a little while to get in the groove five-on-five, so we've got to be ready on special teams."
Former Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster, Calgary' assistant GM last season, stepped into the breach after Sutter's departure. The "interim GM" tag was dropped from his title in the off-season.
Feaster created cap space, dealing defenceman Robyn Regehr and forward Alex Kotalik to Buffalo and centre Daymond Langkow to Phoenix.
One of the oldest teams in the NHL last season got a little younger with the acquisition of 22-year-old centre Paul Byron and 24-year-old defenceman Chris Butler in the Buffalo deal. Right-winger Lee Stempniak, 28, became a Flame in the Langkow transaction.
But Feaster also re-signed 31-year-old winger Alex Tanguay and 36-year-old Morrison as the two established excellent chemistry with captain Jarome Iginla during their hot streak. Iginla had 43 goals, which was the first time he'd passed the 40-goal mark since scoring 50 in 2007-08.
Brent Sutter, Darryl's brother, is behind the bench for a third season. It took the Flames awhile last season, but they finally figured out Brent's philosophy that an aggressive, smart defence begets offence.
"Initially the big problem with this team is we didn't really know what kind of team we were," Morrison said. "We didn't have an identity. We didn't know if we were purely an offensive team or were we a team that was going to rely on defence.
"We won a lot of game tight, low-scoring games in the second half of the year."
How Regehr's departure will affect the Flames' back end is a burning question heading into trailing camp. He averaged over 21 minutes per game and was half of Calgary's shutdown pairing alongside Jay Bouwmeester.
"We'll have to fill that gap," defenceman Cory Sarich said. "That's a lot of minutes and as far as his penalty-killing skills, he's one of the top penalty killers in the league, Robyn. Those are going to be a couple of the big spaces where we're all going to have to contribute and fill."
The team regained some of the muscle lost in Regehr with the off-season signing of big-body Scott Hannan, a former first-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks.
Further clouding Calgary's situation on defence, Sarich spent the summer treating a nagging pelvic injury that carried over from the middle of last season. The hard-hitting defenceman will find out how successful that treatment was when he's cleared for contact at training camp.
"I haven't put it to those tests yet, so until I do that, we won't really know," Sarich said. "This will be my first test getting out there and skating at the same speed as the rest of the guys and doing drills and going from there."
Finding a centre for Iginla had been a perennial question, but Sutter seemed to hit on solution last season when he moved Morrison off the wing to centre the first line. Calgary's surge for a playoff berth lost considerable steam when Morrison tore ligaments in his knee in early March. The Flames need that line to click again.
Morrison had off-season knee surgery and re-signed with Calgary on a one-year deal. He wants to be ready for the season opener Oct. 8 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I still think I have a lot to prove this year," Morrison said. "I think a lot of people might be discounting what I'm able to provide because of the injury."
Feaster's first act as full-fledged GM was to sign left-winger Curtis Glencross to a four-year, $10.2-million contract after the 28-year-old posted a career-high 59 points.
Glencross and winger Rene Bourque, another provider of secondary scoring, are coming off solid seasons and Swedish forward Mikael Backlund, 22, should take a step forward in his second full season in the NHL. The Flames are looking for more than 31 points from centre Matt Stajan at $3.5 million per year against the cap.
The core of the Flames hit on the formula for success in the NHL too late last season. They intend to apply it earlier this upcoming season.
"Everyone enjoyed themselves a lot in the second half of the season, even though it was a frustrating way to finish," Sarich said. "We felt what winning was all about. If we can just draw from that and continue on, that's a great way to start off our season."