A year ago, a hockey person we like and respect said to take the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim seriously. The Ducks had been playing well for a long time and were showing the kind of game that usually led to playoff success.
We believed, but not enough to courageously pick them over Detroit in the first round of the playoffs, let alone to go all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
This year, like-minded hockey folks have said the same thing about the Calgary Flames. And we'll agree.
Last week, when their playoff hopes appeared to be on the line, the Flames rallied to tie Nashville. They then went on the road and beat St. Louis and Detroit before Thursday's win at home over Columbus. With 86 points, the Flames have pulled seven points clear of the ninth-place Los Angeles Kings and within striking distance of the fourth-place Vancouver Canucks (88) and fifth-place Dallas (87).
As of Friday, they have a seven-game unbeaten streak and are a season-best 12 games over .500
Look, these guys are good. The Flames aren't superpower good, but they play a strong game. They work hard, are very physical (especially on the back end), are getting excellent goaltending, and have just enough offense created in a timely fashion to give other teams fits.
The Flames also have this neat little thing going; since the All-Star break, they have declared themselves in playoff mode, going 12-6-2-0. They have broken down the remaining games into groups of seven: Win more than they lose in each group, the equivalent of winning a playoff series, and the numbers should add up to a playoff berth.
It's working. The Flames are all but assured of their first appearance in the postseason in, ironically, seven seasons.
"[The approach has] grounded the team and kept them focused," said assistant coach Jim Playfair.
Along the way, the Flames have made believers out of many who thought another playoff miss was their destiny. There's no one, especially no one in a Flames uniform, who is predicting unbridled playoff success, but their tune has changed from "if" they make the playoffs to "when" they make the playoffs -- an important first step.
"They check well, and they're big," said Detroit coach Dave Lewis after a 4-1 loss to the Flames. "And their back end -- they're as physical as any team. Their forwards hound you. And they have a scoring star [Jarome Iginla]."
The Flames also are getting outstanding goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff, the single biggest reason for their turnaround in the standings. Former No. 1 Roman Turek hasn't given up, either. Turek blanked the Blues 3-0 Sunday, and in his five appearances since Feb. 1, he has a 1.61 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage.
"We think we're maturing," said Flames defenseman Rhett Warrener, a former Buffalo Sabre who came over as a part of the Chris Drury deal in the offseason. "And you can see it against the good teams like Detroit. We played them at home earlier [a 3-0 loss on Nov. 4], and it was a different end of the spectrum. We weren't even close. Now, we can come in and we believe we can win and we know how we have to play to win."
Lay off Lemieux
OK, Mario Lemieux is skating again and what for? The playoffs are clearly out of reach for his Pittsburgh Penguins, and the consensus is there will be a prolonged labor lockout that could scuttle all of next season. Ah, but the World Championships and the World Cup are right around the corner.
There are people who think that participating in those events would be incredibly selfish of Lemieux, but let's hold off a bit. Lemieux hasn't spoken about his health or his future since November, but he has a right to test himself for whatever the future will bring. He has to know if he can skate before he makes any decisions about where to go next. Right now, he's taking a first step. We'll leave it at that for now.
Lemieux played just 10 games before shutting down for the season. It was a source of some consternation to Pens fans and others who felt they maybe didn't get a fair shake regarding the cash they paid for season tickets. Still, Lemieux did have a serious hip injury. And even though he has avoided a moral responsibility to discuss the injury and its impact on his and the Penguins' future, he still has to determine, in his own mind, whether he is physically able to play again -- ever.
Soft goals? Khabibulin agrees
You've probably read about Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella recently ripping into goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin for allowing soft goals. Tortorella, who rarely soft-pedals criticism, said: "If Nikolai Khabibulin can't make that save at that point in time from where that shot was taken [well outside a scoring zone], we're in trouble. If you can't make a save like that come playoff time, we're in trouble.''
What you probably don't know is that Khabibulin agreed and noted that he sometimes loses his focus at times during games, which sometimes leads to very soft goals.
"I think sometimes I give up quite a few goals that are stoppable,'' he said. "I would play a good game until the goal goes in that wasn't a great goal that I should have stopped. Then I would play good again. It's just a matter of focus."
Whatever Khabibulin's problems, don't look for backup John Grahame to get the Bolts' starting nod in the playoffs. Sources have told ESPN.com that Khabibulin has the coach's blessing. He may be on a short leash given last spring's playoffs -- when Tortorella scratched him from a must-win game and went with Grahame -- but he gets the opening nod because of his veteran experience.
FYI: After Thursday night's 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay had scored a league-high 140 goals since Jan. 1.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.