So here it is, the final game day of the Calgary Flames season, and for the third year in a row it will end on the final day of the NHL regular season. That’s just too soon for Flames fans, as we are left to now search for a team that has the best chance to defeat the Vancouver Canucks. Kind of an odd turn of events if you ask me since it wasn’t too long ago that we chastised Shelbyville for considering their back-to-back wins over the Flames as their “Stanley Cup victory”. That’s neither here nor there I guess – water under the bridge, as now Alberta unites to Embrace the Hate.
PRIDE & PREJUDICE
We’ve heard all the players say it; we’ve heard the coaches say it as well. Even though the 2011-12 campaign will be viewed as a colossal disappointment, going into the books as their worst since 2003, the players still want to end the season on a high note. Playing for pride for these players is all they have at this point, and they still feel they owe something to the fans.
Beating the Canucks in front of a home crowd might take the sting out of the end a little, but for the most part, regardless of whether they win or lose to the Ducks this afternoon, the home team should expect to feel the full prejudice of the fan base with a chorus of boos and hisses from many of those who even bother to show up. Alex Tanguay realizes its coming.
“At times, they’re entitled to the boos, to get upset. They’re not happy and they want us to hear it, they’re entitled. Not meaning anything for playoffs, this is a difficult game for us. We know it’s a difficult game for them, too.”
How the team chooses to acknowledge the fans reactions will be unique to each player. Everyone saw the reaction of Tom Kostopoulus when a disgruntled fan through his jersey onto the ice in an attempt to show the players and the organization just how he felt about the team’s performance. In case you missed it…
I’m sure that Kostopoulus bears no ill will on the fan and was reacting purely on emotion and frustration, but it may not be an isolated event. It may be a sentiment that extends into the beginning of next season, until the fans see some measure of change or promise. After all, Feaster said it best himself with the “Fool me once, fool me twice” bit on Sportsnet. The fans are sure to heed those words well.
Matt Stajan is trying to see the bright side of the disconnected support from the fans. “I’ve said it before: That’s the best thing about playing in Canada. The fans care. Whether it’s Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, here, Vancouver or Edmonton, they care. When you’re winning, it’s the greatest place to be. And obviously when you’re not, it’s no fun. But that’s on us. We played the games and fell short.”
That will be a cross to bear for each player as there will be plenty of comments coming from the fans and the media over the next few months about who is ultimately to blame for everything, who should stay and who the team needs to get rid of. You’re even going to see suggestions as to who should be brought in to help this team avoid slipping into the doldrums with the likes of the Oilers, the Maple Leafs and Islanders.
The players know this too, as you are already seeing guys shoulder blame and come to the defense of other specific teammates. Mark Giordano was one that almost every fan assumed was going to be the lynch-pin on defense for the Flames. He was even touted as being the team’s next captain, as he already had the support of the fans, but more importantly the respect of his teammates. The first half of the season wasn’t a strong showing for #5 and to make matters worse, he then missed twenty games due to injury when he ruptured a tendon in November.
The level of respect grew for Gio when not only did he come back much sooner than was anticipated, he came back playing much better and was key cog in the Flames late mid to late season run. To his colleagues there was little doubt that Gio’s heart stood out down the stretch.
“Gio, he does it all,” raved forward Tom Kostopoulus. “He leaves everything on the ice every night. He’ll do anything for the team to win. He’ll put his whole body in front of a shot many times a night. He’s great for us offensively, defensively — any situation. And he’s a great leader too. He’s the type of guy everyone wants on their team. The type of guy everyone wants to build their team around.”
There is little doubt that Giordano is indeed included in any Flames plan to re-tool or rebuild, whatever they choose to call it; there is also little doubt that next season he will be thrust further into the fans spotlight, for both those that expected better out of him this season, and those that want the Flames to shift the role of leader upon his shoulders.
Another player on defense may not be afforded the same tolerance from fans, but hopefully the team is more clearly headed when it comes to evaluations and thoughts of the future. Jay Bouwmeester’s playoff drought keeps getting longer, and now sits at 715 games without so much as a cameo in the post-season. The fans opinions on “J-Bo” are probably more divided than any player not named Iginla or Kiprusoff. From the over-paid contract and the criticisms on the lack of a physical presence to the other side’s staunch defense of ice time and quality of competition, Bouwmester is going to garner a lot of talk as to whether he should remain with the team as they move forward or if he was a busted experiment that left Feaster with just another problem he will be unlikely to resolve.
There is little to discuss according to Chris Butler (who was also viewed as one of the Flames bright spots this year). “When Gio went down, we kind of got down to using three defencemen on the penalty kill sometimes,” Butler said. “Jay would stay out there for two minutes, and the other couple of guys would change.”
Where Gio is viewed to be the next leader of this team by the respect he has earned and the example he displays, Bouwmeester’s leadership may not be apparent to the everyday fan, but is not missed by the guys in the locker room. Butler went on to say, “He’s got a lot of strong opinions about lots of things and he wants to do well.” It goes to show you that, as fans, we think we are quite observant of our team because we see them so much, when actually we don’t really know that much about them, because what we see on the ice is only a fraction of what is really there.
Has Kiprusoff played his last game as a Flame? This may be the million dollar question on the minds of all fans between now and July first, when Kipper’s no-movement clause expires. There are those that believe if management is serious about rebuilding this team then it starts with the dealing of its most valuable asset. Others contend that if not for the heroics of #34 this season, that this team is no better than Edmonton… maybe worse.
Neither side is incorrect in this case; Miikka was the reason that the Flames even had a sniff at the playoffs this year. Despite being told, once again, that the organization had to find a way to play him less as to avoid wearing him out towards the end, once again, he played his 70th game. It was also his 35th win of the season, which is great for him, but will also fuel those who would like to see him moved on. Their argument is that Kiprusoff will be 36 years old next year, a valid point all on its own, and though Miikka was the MVP of the Flames this season, that’s not necessarily something that bodes well for the organization in the long run. The fact that he has a 50% winning percentage only strengthens their point that he is no longer of an ‘elite’ class.
What is not going to make advocates of blowing things up any happier is that management seems to be content with the elderly core. This may be the root of the problems faced by Brent Sutter in his role as head coach, and may ultimately be his undoing as well:
Of his players’ inconsistent commitment to team ideals, Sutter said: "It’s a mindset that still has to be broke here. There’s nights and there’s times when you play really, really well for four or five games in a row. And you think, ‘Okay, we’re getting through it.’ And then we seem to crash and go back to our old methods. And then you start all over again."
Simple case of ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. What does this say though about management and their unwillingness to remove the blinders? Many fans believe that ownership doesn’t even care if the team makes the playoffs and won’t trade Iginla or Kiprusoff because they are one-two in jersey sales and it’s these two guys that are still putting fans in the seats. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this theory if only for the fact that the Flames have the third highest payroll in the NHL, and if the owners really felt that way, they wouldn’t be paying out all that money for nothing.
That being said, Mr. Edwards might want to take a closer look at the seats in the game this afternoon, if the guys still there wearing jerseys with #12 or 34 are the few minority seats that are being filled; he might want to rethink his market strategy. It’s all about supply and demand Murray!