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Hiring of Keenan established Flames' path

by Brian Compton

Captain Jarome Iginla had another big season for the Calgary Flames in 2007-08, totalling 50 goals and 48 assists.
Watch the Flames' Journey to the Cup
After failing to get past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second season in a row, Calgary Flames General Manager Darryl Sutter felt it was time to make a change.

On June 14, 2007, Sutter handed the head coaching duties to Mike Keenan, one of the most successful coaches in NHL history. Jim Playfair, who guided the club behind the bench for the 2006-07 campaign, was retained as an associate coach.

"I think that if you look at the organization, where they've been, and where we want to go, I think it's clear cut,” Keenan said after accepting the position. “I think that Darryl has laid that out for everyone here in this community to know and understand, and now it's a great opportunity and responsibility that we would like to impart on our players to continue that direction, to go on that path of success and to meet the expectations of this community and this organization and certainly our ownership."

Things didn’t click instantly for the Flames at the start of the 2007-08 season. They dropped their first two games of the season, both were held at the Pengrowth Saddledome, and fell to 0-2-1 following 4-2 loss at Detroit on Oct. 10.

"I think there's a lot more in that dressing room than we're seeing," Keenan said after his team’s third straight loss. "I hope so anyway."

The Flames responded by going 4-0-1 over their next five games. The unbeaten streak was able to reach five thanks to a three-point night from captain Jarome Iginla on Oct. 20 in a 4-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers.

"We had a good game as a team," said Iginla, who had five goals and 11 points in during the unbeaten streak. "Right from the start of the game, I thought we were really going."

But Calgary hit another rut at the beginning of November, as the Flames lost their first five games of the month. Three of those losses came on home ice.

"We have to get it turned around," said Calgary forward Craig Conroy after a 4-2 loss to Edmonton on Nov. 10. "Everybody talks about rock bottom -- if we're not at it, we're close. It's not going to get any easier."

The Flames would win their next two games, but closed the month with three consecutive losses. They suffered a tough 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 29, as Jean-Sebastien Giguere made 38 saves to steal the game.

"It's a critical time for us. We're three games under .500, we're playing teams that we have to catch to make the playoffs," Iginla said. "We have to find ways to win and we have to do it now and get ourselves back in this playoff hunt. It's time."

His teammates agreed. Knowing they needed to turn things around, the Flames recorded at least a point in each of their first 11 games and 13 of 14 overall. Their only regulation loss came on Dec. 27 at Vancouver.

By the conclusion of a 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 18, Iginla already had 24 goals and 48 points.

"It feels awesome," Iginla said after the victory, which was Calgary’s sixth straight. "It's one of the most enjoyable little stretches I've been on since being here."

Iginla went cold in January -- he went the final eight games of the month without scoring a goal -- but the Flames managed to win the final four. Other players were stepping up, including veteran Owen Nolan. Roughly two weeks shy of his 36th birthday, Nolan recorded his 11th career hat trick in a 5-4 win against the San Jose Sharks.

"He was a real leader for us tonight,” Keenan said of Nolan. “He was very vocal on the bench, very strong on the ice in all areas -- offensively, killing penalties. He's an experienced player who steps up in big games, and tonight's an example of his leadership."

Calgary was relatively quiet at the trade deadline, other than acquiring pesky defenseman Jim Vandermeer from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2009 third-round draft pick. The Flames entered the deadline coming off four consecutive victories.

"We were probably close to a couple of bad deals," Sutter said. "I think everyone likes to analyze trade deadline deals ... but we didn't want to disrupt any of our core group. We've got a good club."

After losing back-to-back games to close February, the Flames would go 3-0-1 to start March. During a 7-3 win against the St. Louis Blues on March 10, Iginla passed Theo Fleury with his franchise-leading 365th career goal. He had three points on the night, helping Calgary go one point up on the Minnesota Wild for the Northwest Division lead.

"Getting a chance to play in Calgary as long as I have, to be a part of any of the team's records is a huge thrill," Iginla said. "I've been extremely fortunate and blessed and it's been so much fun and I want to keep going."

But the Flames would trade wins and losses for the remainder of the month, and all but surrendered the chance to win the division with a 6-2 loss at Vancouver on March 30. Combined with a Minnesota victory earlier that night, the Flames fell five points behind the Wild.

"It has to bother you," Keenan said of the loss. "If it doesn't bother you at this point, then you don't have much of a passion for winning. Our defensive zone coverage was real poor down low. I guess that's what bothered me the most."

Down the stretch, Calgary’s passion re-asserted itself, and the Flames qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, ironically getting some help from their arch-rivals in Edmonton, who beat the Canucks in a game that secured a playoff berth for Calgary.


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