Last season, the Calgary Flames took an important step forward.
Formerly a rudderless group of veterans without much direction or identity, the group coalesced under second-year head coach Bob Hartley. Through the leadership of Hartley and new captain Mark Giordano, the club formed a team identity and impressed many with their play and winning ways after the Olympic Break. Granted, they finished a fair distance from the playoffs, but progress was progress.
Heading into this season, expectations for the second year of the team’s rebuild were muted; they’d be about the same or a little better, most (including myself) projected. Few had them in the playoff picture, and fewer still had them finishing in a playoff spot.
Yet here we are, with about 30 games remaining on the docket, and the Calgary Flames firmly in the mix for a post-season berth.
Call it surprising. Call it impressive. Just don’t tell anybody in the locker room that the team’s not supposed to be this high in the standings at this point in the NHL calendar.
“I don’t think we’ve overachieved at all this year,” assessed forward Sean Monahan. “But I think we still got a lot more to prove and I think we have it in this dressing room.”
Monahan’s teammate and roommate Lance Bouma elaborated on the team’s pre-season expectations.
“We always had a belief here that we’re a playoff team, and I think that was the goal right from the start,” said Bouma. “We do the seven-game segments throughout the year, we’ve had a playoff mindset the entire year. Guys know what it’s gonna take to get there and we talk about it every day. Maybe the people on the outside didn’t see us being in the playoffs, but in here we had the belief that we’re a playoff team.”
As Bouma alluded to, coach Hartley divided the 82-game NHL season into seven-game segments, forcing the team to approach each chunk as a simulated playoff series. Winning four (or more) games in each segment was seen as the key to playoff hockey returning to Calgary for the first time since 2009. The team managed to win four (or more) games in six of the first seven seven-game segments.
One of the key’s to the team’s success has been a renewed emphasis on results following a season where process – whether it’s sticking to systems, going hard in practice or playing consistently – was the focus. Noted forward Joe Colborne, last season featured many games that were seen as “moral victories” – match-ups where the Flames kept it close or played well but lost against the NHL’s best clubs. Indeed, the Flames tied an NHL record with 49 games decided by a single goal. The push in the locker room to begin this season was to replace those “moral victories” with actual victories.
“[They were games where] we out-played them, deserved to win, but we gave it up at the last minute,” noted Colborne on last campaign’s moral victories. “We’d come and say, ‘it’s a moral victory, we’ve proven we can play with these guys.’ This year it’s been.. ‘you need the two points.'”
How have the Flames managed to pull off their improving play? Colborne pointed to one possible culprit – aside from the team improving their goaltending significantly from last season: the growth of the team’s young core.
“I think it’s a bunch of guys kind-of maturing into their roles,” said Colborne, pointing to Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan, Lance Bouma and T.J. Brodie as notable examples. “As those guys step up and start challenging some of the other guys who have already gone out and proven themselves, I think that’s the main difference.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley noted that the team is reveling in the excitement of the playoff chase and, regardless of the ultimate result of their playoff quest, is aiming to give a full effort to the very end.
“Whether we’re gonna make it or we’re gonna be short of a few points, we’re gonna be able to look at everyone right in the eyes and say we left everything on the table, and that’s our mindset,” said Hartley.