On Thursday night, Flames fans were given a flashback of electric proportions: a roaring crowd, anticipation mixed with anxiety and excitement, and the smell of playoffs in the air.
Except this flashback wasn’t a fantasy, it was a reality. In a do-or-die game, the Flames faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champions the L.A. Kings, hoping to clinch a playoff spot for the first time in five years.
For every Flames fan watching, the game was a battle between what the heart wanted and what the brain ‘knew.’ Would it really be possible for a team in their second year of a rebuild to beat a team who has won a Stanley Cup twice in the last three years?
Regular season numbers were also not in the Flames’ favour, as hockey analysts were quick to point out. A trend of poor puck possession, poor starts and average goaltending, posed a real threat to the team’s chances of winning this game.
But as the always-snarky Brian Burke stated, “Anyone can sit in their parents’ basement and write blogs about analytics. I know this team, and they know how to win.”
Well, there’s a reason he’s the president of hockey operations for the Cinderella-story Calgary Flames. Defying the odds all season, the Flames exploded out of the tunnel on Thursday night and showed the Kings exactly what they were made of, and why they deserved to go to the playoffs. With a 3-point night for Jiri Hudler and a 3-1 win for the home team, the Calgary Flames secured a spot in the playoffs, stopping the bewildered Kings’ bid for a third Stanley Cup at the regular season.
And now it begins. Whether they make it past the first round or not, the Flames have surprised everyone in the league with how far they’ve come, and have now established that they’ve got what it takes to be a constant Cup contender from here on out.
While it’s been five years since the Flames made an appearance in the playoffs, the atmosphere within their locker room is more akin to the 2004 season than it is to the 2009 season. Not because they’re expected to go all the way to the finals, but because the work ethic and level of play of this roster is on the same level of the roster led by Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff.
However, there are several big differences between the 2004 Flames and the 2015 Flames that could greatly impact their playoff performances to come. And it all starts with leadership. Iginla and Kiprusoff were no doubt the leaders of the 2004 pack, and amazing ones at that. They were stars of that team, but they were pretty much the only stars. Wins were reliant on them and the way they played.
The 2015 team’s undoubted leader is captain Mark Giordano, who’s playoff aspirations were cut short following a season-ending bicep injury. Losing Giordano was a severe blow to the young team, but instead of letting his absence on the ice cripple them, every single player rose to the occasion. The blueliners assumed responsibility for their injured captain: Deryk Engelland, whose signing raised quite a few eyebrows and garnered a lot of negativity in the summer, stepped up, scored a couple of goals (his first and second of the entire season), and assumed a lot of the defensive responsibility.
The saying “Out with the old, in with the new” could not ring any clearer in terms of comparisons between the 2004 team and the 2015 team. The average age of the Flames roster during their Stanley Cup run was 30; the 2015 Flames’ average age is 25. With youth comes speed and agility, and the level of both is evidently much higher in this young, rebuilding team.
The 2004 team had size on their side. They were a bigger, tougher and more intimidating team. But what the 2015 Flames lack in size they make up for in speed and skill. Sure, our superstar rookie is only 5’9 and 160 lbs, labelled “tiny” by his own management team. Joe Nieuwendyk has compared Johnny Gaudreau to a young Theoren Fleury: tiny but talented. To make up for his stature, Gaudreau has tailored his game to his benefit. He thinks at a different level than most players his age, and his skill set continues to amaze with every shift he plays.
Throw into the mix Sean Monahan, who recently became the youngest Flame ever to reach 30 goals in his sophomore season. And Jiri Hudler, who came to Calgary relatively unknown in 2012, but has since become the team’s most reliable point-getter. Hudler achieved a career-best this season, reaching 76 points in 78 games. We can’t forget Lance Bouma, who’s willingness to block shots despite the painful consequences, has bailed out his goalies on several occasions. Or Joni Ortio, who didn’t let the glare of the spotlight, the immense pressure to win, or the fact that he had to travel across the world by bus and plane stop him from getting his very first career NHL shutout. Then there is David Schlemko, who originally stepped in as an attempt to fill the void left by Giordano and ended up immortalizing himself in the hockey world with a Peter Forsberg-like deke in the eight round of a shootout (the game winner, no less) against elite goaltender Tuuka Rask.
The contributions by every single member of the Calgary Flames have been constant and borne a great impact on where the team is today. Despite their struggles (amidst the excitement of entering the postseason, how can we forget that miserable mid-winter slump in which they lost eight games in a row?), the Flames have found ways to win from every corner of their locker room. Getting to this point in itself is a huge success for the team, and while it is too early to start predicting success of Stanley Cup calibre, they are on a clear path to it surpassing the glory that was the 2004 Calgary Flames.