Calgary Flames ‘have a lot to prove’ in critical playoff run

From a struggling start, to a player collapsing on the ice, to a coaching change stemming from racial comments, nothing has come easy for the Calgary Flames this season, but yet here comes their chance to make amends.

Sean Monahan didn’t care to mince words when asked about his prime motivator for these playoffs.

“We got embarrassed last year in the post-season,” said the Flames’ first line centre, whose first-place club was dominated by the Colorado Avalanche in five opening round games.

“As a player representing an organization, that sticks with you. We’ve got a lot to prove here and we have a lot of things motivating us.”

Like redemption.

“We’ve talked about it a lot, and a lot behind closed doors — we got outworked and outcompeted and got owned by Colorado,” added Monahan.

“You want to be a guy who can be a part of the post-season and that’s where a lot of guys’ legacies are built. That’s the kind of guys we want to be, and we want to step up and take charge in Game 1.”

“We” being the top line he has anchored for years here, without much playoff success.

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Against a surging Colorado club Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Johnny Gaudreau combined for two goals, three assists and a combined minus-6.

Not good enough.

It’s the latest in a series of subpar playoff showings by a team that has won one of its last nine playoff games and has everyone questioning whether the Flames are built for playoff success with those three leading the ice time.

“This is an important time for our organization,” said Monahan, as his team preps for its play-in series with Winnipeg.

It’s an important time for this line.

“Last year was my first appearance in the playoffs and overall our line didn’t do a very good job,” admitted Lindholm, who led the Flames at the pause with 29 goals.

“For myself, I kind of got away from my game and started doing other things and tried to hit people. It’s part of my game, but not something I’m looking to do. In the playoffs I was.”

For a trio that rolled to career numbers in the regular season, the jarring turn in fortunes has resonated.

“You have that on your mind all summer, and while working out,” said Lindholm.

“You see how tough it is to get to the finals. That was a good motivation for myself and hopefully for other guys. Every year you realize you don’t have many chances to go at (the Stanley Cup) and right now as a team we don’t have a lot of experience and hopefully we can do a better job this year. Now we’re more underdogs and that’s probably better for us.”

Underdogs or not, it doesn’t reduce the pressure on a deep, talented team that very few people see as a legitimate threat to return to the form that had them dominate the west during last year’s regular season.

After all, the game changes in the playoffs and therein lies the fuel for most doubters who are of the belief a more intense, heavier and faster game isn’t what the Flames can keep up in.

If not, things are going to change around here.

“It’s time to make another step forward and have some playoff success,” admitted Mark Giordano, whose club has only been past the first round twice since winning the Cup in 1989.

“At certain points, it felt like we were never going to get this opportunity. And now it looks like we’re going to have a great opportunity, as good as anyone else, to win that Stanley Cup.”

Their chances will diminish exponentially if they don’t learn from the lessons Colorado taught them last year.

“It was not a matter of skill last year, it was a matter of will,” said Flames interim coach Geoff Ward.

“(The Avs) had a matter of will and you saw it. We all have to be aware of that. If every guy in the room isn’t prepared to step outside their comfort zone then your chances of winning the Cup are greatly reduced.

We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. We have to be prepared to play out of our comfort zone.”

Optimists in Calgary cling to the adversity the team faced this season, headlined by the coaching change when Akim Aliu’s racial allegations led to Bill Peters’ departure.

The team responded well to Ward taking over, winning seven in a row to get them back into a playoff race that saw them finish eighth, barely ahead of first round opponent Winnipeg.

Many had counted them out then, only to see the club show plenty of moxy.

But none of the challenges they went through this season compared to last season’s playoff face plant.

“The one thing about experience is you have to get it yourself and go through it — you can’t buy it,” said Ward.

“We lived through something last year none of us want to live through again. We talk about that in terms of spring-boarding ahead to be a better, battle-tested group. It’s something we can draw on now.

We’re going to really challenge ourselves to see what we learned. The group has to embrace and move forward with it. We’re anxious to see what will be revealed Aug. 1.”

As GM Brad Treliving said, the onus will be on teams to create their own momentum starting that day.

Nothing that happened before the pause matters anymore — that was four months ago.

At that time Cam Talbot was busy piecing together numbers that rival Connor Hellebuyck’s and Mikael Backlund was on a month-long tear that saw him score 10 goals and add 11 assists in 15 games.

Offensively, these Flames can keep up with the Jets.

Debate all you want about whether Monahan, Gaudreau, Lindholm, Backlund and Tkachuk are as potent as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine.

The difference will be which team can provide a better defence by way of goaltending (advantage Jets) or the blue line (advantage Calgary).

The trade deadline additions of Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson give the Flames a formidable third pairing.

The Flames will spend camp trying to determine the best defensive pairings, which shouldn’t be hard given how interchangeable they were all season.

Travis Hamonic’s decision to opt out of the playoffs for family reasons will likely prompt Rasmus Andersson to move up to the second pairing alongside Noah Hanifin, which is how they’ve opened camp.

The debate over who will start in goal will rage through camp, as the ever-popular Rittich was the team’s first half workhorse and MVP, while Talbot surged after Christmas and has playoff experience that Rittich doesn’t.

Analyze it all you want, but if the Flames’ top line is neutralized and the team is outworked once again, this series ends early.

Then the real debate rages about how significant the off-season changes will have to be.

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