CALGARY - The Calgary Flames know they can't afford to wait almost three months to get on track this season
And with that in mind, the club has adopted the slogan "every game matters" for 2011-12.
Calgary opens its schedule Saturday at home versus the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins, who are still minus their captain as he continues to recover from a concussion.
The Flames went on a 25-11-9 run to finish last season, but that surge from second-last in the Western Conference came too late as Calgary (41-29-12) finished 10th and out of the playoffs for the second straight year.
"We do know the importance of every game, early games, how much they mean and momentum," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said Friday. "There is a good feeling coming out of camp. We're finding that balance of finding a way to relax and working hard when it's time.
"I say it a lot, but it really is that balance between 'Oh, this game, we've got to win this game' and just to find that way of approaching each game and be as consistent as possible. At the end of the year, those are the better teams and we plan on being there."
The Flames, who had nine days of preparation after their final pre-season game, never dressed their full lineup during the exhibition schedule because of injuries.
Iginla suffered back spasms 25 minutes into the first training camp practice and didn't play a game in the pre-season.
He returned to the ice Tuesday, the same day the Flames announced centre Mikael Backlund would be out up to six weeks with a broken pinkie that required surgery.
The 22-year-old had been tabbed to centre Calgary's top line with Iginla and Alex Tanguay on the wings. That role now falls to David Moss, but the trio haven't had any dress rehearsals other than practice.
"We've been doing a lot of scrimmage, game simulation, five-on-five, four-on-four and those types of situations," Tanguay said. "It gets your reaction time, your timing a little bit better. Especially for Iggy and Mosser, we haven't had a chance to play together in the pre-season. It's important to get some of that timing, but (there's) nothing like playing games so we'll see tomorrow."
Iginla, who needs 16 goals for a career 500, will also test his back under game conditions Saturday.
"I've been pushing it the last few days in practice doing everything and each day got more confident with it," Iginla said. "Every day has felt better and better. Today, I didn't even think about it on the ice. I don't think I'll think about during the game."
The Penguins have already played their season-opener, a 4-3 shootout win Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks. They complete their road trip Sunday against the Oilers.
A visit by the Pens to Calgary happens every other year, but even without Crosby, the 2009 Stanley Cup champs are a young, fast squad with a revitalized Evgeni Malkin back from last season's knee injury.
"I think Sidney makes that team much better, but they're still a great team without him," Tanguay said. "You saw what they did last year, even missing Sidney for half of the year, they still finished with 100-plus points. They played great in the playoffs and could have easily won their series against Tampa.
"I think they're a good team, solid from top to bottom and certainly a good test for us tomorrow."
There are no divisional or conference points on the line between the two clubs Saturday, but after two years of finishing out of the post-season, Calgary needs to build confidence among themselves and their fans quickly.
A Las Vegas oddsmaker puts Pittsburgh's chances at winning the Stanley Cup again at 10-1, while Calgary is listed a distant 40-1. Head coach Brent Sutter may use those numbers to motivate his team.
"You use it all to your advantage, that's what you do," Sutter said. "What people on the outside think about your team is irrelevant.
"We feel we have a good team, we feel we have a team that can be competitive every night and give ourselves a chance to win every night if we do things a certain way and we play a certain way."
Calgary's roster is similar to last season, albeit a little younger and cheaper under new general manager Jay Feaster. Almost all outgoing players were over 30 and the incoming were under that age.
Feaster's major off-season move was dealing defenceman Robyn Regehr, along with salary-cap dead weight Ales Kotalik, to Buffalo in exchange for defenceman Chris Butler and forward Paul Byron. Regehr was Calgary's assistant captain and defenceman Mark Giordano inherited his 'A' this week.
Feaster also signed Scott Hannan to replace some of the lost back-end muscle. He's paired with Giordano, while Butler stepped into Regehr's spot as Jay Bouwmeester's defensive partner. Derek Smith, a free-agent pickup over the summer, will start the season as Calgary's seventh defenceman.
Czech centre Roman Horak, 20, made Calgary's opening day roster. Feaster acquired Horak and two draft picks from the New York Rangers in June when it became apparent he wouldn't sign defenceman Tim Erixon. Feaster dealt Calgary's first-round pick in 2009 for Horak, who played last season for the Western Hockey League's Chilliwack Bruins.
"I'm a little nervous, but I have to control my emotions," Horak said. "There's going to be a lot of great players out there. You have to get over it. You can't think 'Oh, I'm playing Malkin' or all those players."
Calgary also traded long-time centre Daymond Langkow to Phoenix for winger Lee Stempniak, who is projected for the second-line line with Curtis Glencross and centre Olli Jokinen. Horak is expected to centre a line of Niklas Hagman and Rene Bourque. Matt Stajan is between Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopoulos on the fourth line.
After Saturday's opener, the Flames embark on a three-game road trip to St. Louis, Montreal and Toronto.
Notes: Pittsburgh's last game in Calgary was Jan. 13, 2010 when the Penguins won 3-1. Crosby scored the first goal of the game. ... Backlund (finger), centre Brendan Morrison (knee) and Raitis Ivanans (concussion) will start the season on Calgary's injured list. ... Among the upcoming milestones for Flames players this season, Jokinen needs to play 40 for 1,000 career NHL games.