Nobody outside of Calgary expected the Flames to earn a playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference, let alone in a season fraught with injury and turmoil. But that’s exactly what they did.
Mikael Backlund stood barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, one hand on his hip and the other clutching a plastic bottle half full of chalky brown liquid. A few minutes had passed since Calgary’s game-five loss to Vancouver in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Backlund, the Flames’ 26-year-old centre, looked like he’d taken a beating. The bridge of his nose had been sliced up and stitched back together, but he was composed in the visitors’ dressing room as he addressed a crowd of reporters wanting to know how badly his team had been rattled. “There’s no way we’re losing at home,” he said, referring to game six. It sounded less like a promise than a casual expression of confidence—the same confidence shown by his teammates, just worded a little more forcefully.
His conviction was understandable—the Flames led the series 3–2. But they’d looked outmatched in that night’s game, and momentum seemed to have shifted to Vancouver. That suited the Flames just fine, though, because the team had faced adversity all season. There were myriad moments this year when it looked from the outside like the Flames were a dead team skating, but they defied odds and pundits to become the surprise of the NHL season. In a year filled with talk of tanking, the Flames offered hope to bottom-dwellers everywhere.
Last summer, the chatter around the Flames—who’d finished sixth in the Pacific Division in 2013–14—was all about new blood. It was partly excitement about Sam Bennett, the team’s first-round draft pick, and partly about the arrival of Johnny Gaudreau, winner of the 2014 Hobey Baker Award. But mostly the talk lingered on Connor McDavid. Teams not looking to contend for the playoffs were set to elbow and shove their way down to the league’s basement for the chance to draft him, and Calgary was said to be in that race.
The trouble was, once the season started, the Flames’ results were an ill fit for that storyline. They kicked things off with a loss at home—4–2 to the Canucks—but then won four of six road games. According to Flames captain Mark Giordano, the media’s low expectations didn’t go unnoticed. “It’s tough to ignore,” he says. “But I think you use it a little bit as motivation.”
After a quarter of the season, Calgary was one point off the division lead. The team was buoyed by a balance of young guns—like Gaudreau and 20-year-old Sean Monahan—and veterans—like free-agent goalie addition Jonas Hiller and Giordano, whose play spurred talk of a Norris Trophy. They also benefited from an up-tempo style that often fatigued opponents.
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But the Flames’ storybook season wouldn’t have earned the required narrative arc without misfortune. There were early injuries: Bennett was out before the season even started, and by the end of October, Backlund, Matt Stajan and Mason Raymond had all found their way onto the injured reserve. The team soldiered on, despite criticism—even as they were winning games, many insisted their pace wasn’t sustainable since the team’s possession numbers were terrible.
In December, the naysayers were rewarded as the team lost seven straight in regulation. The nose-dive could have spelled disaster, but the Flames never lost their nerve. “It wears on you mentally,” says Giordano. “But we were pretty happy with some of those games. We were playing well, we just weren’t getting results.”
Calgary finally stopped the bleeding, earning a point with an overtime loss in Vancouver on Dec. 20. Two days later, the team’s come-from-behind win over the L.A. Kings—featuring a natural hat trick from Gaudreau topped off by the OT winner from Giordano—sparked a four-game win streak and erased the collective sense of dread surrounding the team. But the biggest blow was yet to come. In the third period of a Feb. 25 tilt with the Devils, Giordano tried to clear the puck out of Calgary’s zone when he got a hook behind his arm and “felt something pretty significant.” An MRI revealed a torn biceps; “Gio” was done for the season.
The loss of their captain should have spelled doom for the Flames, but again they ignored their doubters. “The media thought our chances weren’t great, but we were confident,” says Giordano. “We know our game. It’s never been about one guy.”
That resolve paid off. In a crucial late-season meeting with the Kings, last year’s Stanley Cup champions, Calgary clinched its first playoff spot since 2009 with a 3–1 win. “For it to come down to the last couple of games was pretty nerve-racking,” says Giordano. But making the playoffs after all these years? “There’s nothing better,” he says.
He watched game six against Vancouver from a room inside the Saddledome with a group of fellow inactive Flames. The Canucks, undeterred by a chorus of boos, leapt ahead with goals from Brandon McMillan and Jannik Hansen. Radim Vrbata added one more after Karri Ramo replaced Hiller, putting the Flames down 3–0 after 10 minutes. Any other team might have been shaken, but for Calgary, this was familiar territory.
Giordano figured they had a chance, especially after rookie Michael Ferland scored near the end of the first. “We could sense that the Canucks were on their heels a bit,” says Giordano. “Our team’s been like that—we’ve been able to capitalize on key situations.”
And capitalize they did: Monahan and Gaudreau both scored in the second. Vancouver’s Luca Sbisa put his team ahead, but Hudler evened things up again in the third. The decider came with 4:14 remaining, with Stajan firing a wrist shot past Miller. Two empty-netters later and the Flames had won 7–4, securing their spot in the next round. As the home team waved their sticks in celebration, Stajan skated over to a TV crew waiting for an interview. Through deafening cheers and the clanking of cowbells, he was asked how the Flames had pulled off such an astonishing comeback. “We found a way,” he said, stretching his mouth into a huge grin, his teeth and lips stained with blood. “That’s what we’ve done all year.”
But the Flames' storybook run didn't have a storybook ending. Facing the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary lost round two in five games—their lone win being, naturally, a dramatic come-from-behind affair. Though their season had ended—and the chatter about just how sustainable their success might be had already begun—they'd shown they could get this far. “The investment that we put in in those young players in those playoffs, whether it’s against the Canucks or this one against the Ducks, it’s priceless,” said coach Hartley after his team had been eliminated. “It doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed success. But at least it’s another page in our book.”
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.