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2013-14 provides a spark of hope for Flames fans

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Despite a recent hot streak in which they routed both the mighty Anaheim Ducks and rival Edmonton Oilers, the Calgary Flames are going to miss the playoffs yet again. On paper, this year’s campaign is not much different from the team’s general trend these past few years. Occasional flashes of brilliance and a never-say-die attitude are not enough to overcome a genuine lack of skill on the squad — this grim reality has many Flames fans shaking their heads in frustration.

This is not a preferable situation for a hockey club with such a passionate following. However, it is not the worst situation either. The Flames may not be playing for the Cup this postseason, but they have learned some valuable lessons, gained a few key pieces and most importantly, shown that they are not willing to remain the punch line of jokes cracked by hockey enthusiasts.

With the departure of star captain Jarome Iginla, rock-steady defence Jay Bouwmeester and stalwart goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames roster looks thinner than ever. With the exceptions of sniper Mike Cammalleri, deft playmaker Jiri Hudler and rearguard Mark Giordano, there is not much to look at on paper. The team is especially vulnerable at centre ice, where perennial checking forward Matt Stajan is their No. 1 pivot.

However, this unlikely band of athletes has demonstrated time and time again that they are not fazed by the competition, and they certainly don’t give a rip about what others think of their chances. Each and every game, the Flames have charged onto the ice with the desire to win.

They are willing to play physical, grind out their defensive duties and fight for every inch of the rink. When experienced assets like Dennis Wideman and Curtis Glencross went down with injury, others have stepped up to the plate, particularly those called up from the minors.

Toward the end of the season, Flames greenhorns have shown that they will soon be ready to play in the big league. First-round draft pick Sean Monahan has displayed tremendous two-way acumen, while T.J. Brodie is maturing into a solid offensive blueliner. Both have locked down a roster spot for good, while others like Joe Colborne, Kris Russell and Mikael Backlund are beginning to come into their own as well. Players like these have teamed up with serviceable veterans such as Cammalleri, Giordano, Hudler and David Jones to compete with much more intensity than the roster chart would suggest.

The Flames have many other youthful players waiting in the wings. Max Reinhart, Tyler Wotherspoon and Markus Granlund have displayed bursts of talent during their auditions with the big club, while 2011 first-rounder Sven Baertschi remains an exciting prospect. Karri Ramo is starting to assert himself as a solid netminder, as is Joni Ortio. For athletes such as these, experience and proper development are absolutely crucial, and everyone has received a chance to hone their craft.

Arguably the most positive sign of the Flames’s performance going forward is the attitude in their locker room. Coach Bob Hartley expects and encourages his squad to win, odds be damned. His message is echoed by veteran leaders like Giordano, Cammalleri and Glencross, instilling a ton of gutsiness in the young bucks. No matter what happens down the stretch, one thing the Flames must avoid is the mentality of tanking to obtain good draft picks. The Oilers have done just that, but the resulting complacency of their squad has stalled their rebuild. On the other hand, the Flames are willing to take on all comers and play as a unit.

Despite the losses, Flames fans can take many positives out of the first year of their rebuild. This season has merely been a dress rehearsal for future successes.

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