It's winning time.
The Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks hook up for Game 1 of their first round NHl playoff series tonight and nothing that has happened, for either team, in the last 82 games matters.
"It's like a new season starting," said goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. "Anything can happen now. Every team is at zero points. It's just go-for-the-wins time."
Calgary has had trouble beating the Hawks this season, though. Chicago took all four games in the regular season. No matter says Calgary head coach Mike Keenan. The dynamics have changed. Calgary bolstered the roster with the acquisition of Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline while the Hawks acquired checking centre Sammy Pahlsson and the two teams have not met since then.
"There have been changes on both sides that can impact the series. For that reason I don't put too much emphasis on what happened in the regular season. The teams have changed and the circumstances have changed."
The Flames struggled down the stretch, largely because of injuries and an inability to ice a full roster because of salrary cap implications.
"If you look at the last five games, it was just bad luck. We lost players and we were not able to replace them," said Keenan. "You can't use the results from the last five games as a reflection of our team at all."
The Flames will have defenceman Dion Phaneuf back after missing the final two games of the season. As well forwards Curtis Glencross, who missed the last two games because of an infection, and Rene Bourque, out since mid-February with a high ankle sprain, are back in the line-up. It's not known whether defencemen Cory Sarich will be ready for the first game and top shutdown defenceman Robyn regehr will miss the entire first series. Still, the return of other injured players has boosted morale.
"The energy in the dressing room is great," said Glencross.
"Those guys (who have returned) are huge," said forward Eric Nystrom. "We are happy to have them back. But they can't be the only guys going. Everyone from top to bottom has to be on top of their game in the playoffs."
A couple of key Flames, Olli Jokinen and Mike Cammalleri, will play in their first-ever playoff games.
"Everybody is fresh. As a player you want to bring your best everyday. That's what we are here for. It's a matter of winning now. Nobody is worrying about how we get wins. It's about getting one more goal than them. That's all," said Jokinen.
Kiprusoff will face an old nemesis in Nikolai Khabibulin who will start in the Chicago net. Khabibulin has a 22-5-2 regular season record against the Flames and was the goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning who defeated the Flames in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. In that series Khabibulin had a 1.85 goals against average while Kiprusoff had a 1.72 goals against average. Both goalies recorded shutouts in the series.
The key to scoring on Khabibulin, according the Flames, is traffic.
"Khabibulin is a great goalie with a lot of experience. We're going to have to make sure we get shots to the net and get traffic in front. It's the ugly goals that win games so we have to get a lot of traffic and a lot of pucks there," said Nystrom.
The Flames had two solid days of practice before flying to Chicago on Wednesday. They feel they are ready for the noise of the United Center and the young, fast, but playoff inexperienced Hawks.
"It doesn't matter what you do in the regular season. It matters what you do in the playoffs. We get a fresh slate," said Conroy.