Life in southern Alberta is generally in tune with the seasons and the weather.
Aside from periodic chinook winds that temporarily melt the city’s snow, residents of Calgary are typically penned into the houses during the cold winter months, hoping to wait out the weather. The warmer temperatures of spring typically bring Calgarians out of their winter slumber, tentatively going outside to enjoy the nicer temperatures. Once mid-March rolls around, thoughts immediately shift towards the impending start of the golf season.
That has been the routine for the past several years. However, this routine has been disrupted by a simple fact: the Calgary Flames might make the playoffs this season.
Expectations weren’t high for the Flames from outside the organization. With a few bodies shuffled in and out from their team that finished fourth-from-the-bottom last season, it was understandable. And for the majority of the hockey season, the Flames have continued to punch above their weight. They have allowed their opponents to score first 42 times through the first 71 games of the season, but they’ve become adept at making comebacks and playing “counter-punch” hockey – taking advantage of the few chances they’re given when spending a big chunk of the game playing in their own defensive end. After playing this style for the bulk of a season, they’re used to playing tight-checking, playoff-style hockey.
The early-season success despite the low external expectations has done two things: it’s energized the locker room, who are all stoked to be playing important games late in the season, and continued to fuel the line-up’s buy-in to head coach Bob Hartley’s systems. Considering that three-quarters of a season of shot-blocking, stick-checking and general adherence to Hartley’s “full sixty minutes” mantra has resulted in a series of dramatic comebacks and a potential playoff appearance for the group, it’s no wonder.
However, the most important thing that the team’s success to this point has done is fuel a sense of belief.
The Flames went on a run late last season, winning at a playoff pace after the January 18 line brawl in Vancouver. That string of games developed a morsel of belief in the Flames room that they had the right habits and the right system and could make the playoffs if they were able to keep that style of play up over a long season. The roster tinkering by new general manager Brad Treliving over the off-season (and early in the season, sending veterans Brian McGrattan and Devin Setoguchi to the AHL) appears to have been with the aim of producing a group that could stick to the program over 82 games.
There’s no guarantee that the Calgary Flames will make the playoffs.
Given the tightness of the Western Conference standings – and the proximity of the Flames to the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spots – it’s likely that the race will go down to the season’s final weekend. But the key things that this season has produced for the Calgary Flames is momentum and confidence. The organization appears to be, finally, on an upward trajectory after drifting aimlessly for several seasons. And within the locker room, there appears to be a sense of confidence that has elevated the team above what it was thought to be. And if the team can upgrade a couple areas in the future – likely at the least featuring the promotion of OHL star and 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett to the NHL roster – that confidence may be further augmented.
There’s a lot of hockey left to be played before Calgarians hit the golf courses in earnest. For the local hockey team, even with just shy of a dozen games remaining, regardless of how the final few contests go, this season has to be considered a big success.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.