Flames’ core using past shortcomings as fuel for pivotal playoff run

Sportsnet's Dan Murphy previewed the only all-Canadian matchup in the Stanley Cup qualifier round, between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.

EDMONTON – Mikael Backlund’s 11th hour proclamation was a perfect way to set the stage for Saturday night’s long-awaited showdown with Winnipeg.

“If we play our best, I think we’re the better team,” said the Flames veteran.

“I think we have a really good chance to move on if we do our job and play the way we can.”

Debate the validity of his claim all you want, but the reality of the situation is that the Calgary Flames haven’t been able to “play their best” in the playoffs since Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff carried the team to the Cup Final in 2004.

Since then the team has built on a significant history of faltering when games matter most, winning just one playoff series since.

Which brings us to the mood in Calgary as the eighth-ranked Flames face the ninth-ranked Winnipeg Jets.

Ask casual Flames fans about their team’s playoff chances and the answer is almost invariably preceded with a wince.

It’s a reaction that likely has plenty to do with last year’s faceplant, this year’s opponent, this year’s shortcomings and a long list of playoff letdowns.

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The bulk of Sportsnet’s Insiders share those doubts, with only five of 18 predicting the Flames will win this series.

The list of reasons why is lengthy:

• The Flames have won just one of their last 11 playoff games, which includes a five-game dismissal to the Avs last year after the Flames finished first in the west.

• The team’s top player, Johnny Gaudreau, had just two assists in last year’s playoff, and just one helper in the previous playoff sweep. All told, Gaudreau’s top line had five points in the series loss to Colorado — an amazing fall from grace for a trio that had career regular seasons.

• The Flames have the least amount of playoff experience in the 24-team tourney with 323 games, which includes 114 from third line winger Milan Lucic. The Jets have 515 playoff games under their belts and the veteran Bruins have 1,191.

• The Jets have, arguably, the best goalie in the game this year, Connor Hellebuyck. His mastery this season included a 2-1 overtime win over Calgary in their only meeting, en route to a 31-21-5 record and subsequent Vezina Trophy nomination.

• The notoriously slow-starting Flames led the league most of the season in surrendering the opening goal, which is not only deflating, but can be lethal in a best-of-five series against a stingy goalie.

• The Flames have advanced past the first round just twice since the team won the Stanley Cup in 1989 (both times against Vancouver).

• The Jets’ top line – Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor – is one of the league’s most prolific, capable of going on great scoring binges like the one that saw Scheifele score 14 goals in 17 games two playoffs back.

• The Flames did little to inspire faith with their 4-1 exhibition loss to the Oilers, which featured another slow start.

Sure, the Jets were also first round fodder last year. But they lost in six games to the eventual Cup champs from St. Louis. One year earlier, Winnipeg made it to the Western Conference Final on the backs of a top line that saw Scheifele post one of most prolific goal scoring performances in recent playoff lore.

Optics, predictions, history and analysis aside, the bigger question might revolve around what’s at stake here for the Flames – a team that has been widely quoted with an insistence they’re “sick of losing in the first round” and will use the pain of last year’s faceplant to better prepare them this year.

Well, actions speak louder than Matthew Tkachuk’s words.

Maybe the mounting playoff losses that core players like Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, T.J. Brodie, Backlund and Gaudreau have suffered through are all part of the process of building a champion.

Maybe now, with expectations fading, this is their time.

Heck, even the dynastic Oilers of the 80’s had to experience the sting of losing as youngsters before they could understand what it took to win.

This is a deep, talented Flames club, which has proven hard to beat at times during the last two regular seasons.

But maybe this team really isn’t built to win when the intensity, grittiness and emotions increase exponentially.

If not, you can bet significant changes are in order.

Another no-show to open the qualification round will undoubtedly put the wheels in motion for a change to the core.

General Manager Brad Treliving, who isn’t going anywhere by virtue of the multi-year extension he signed in the fall that doesn’t kick in until next season, will have to start searching for ways to effect significant change.

The players know it, which adds another layer of pressure to a group that truly enjoys one another’s company.

But let’s not get ahead of things.

Flames players claim things will be different this year because of the humiliating way in which the team bowed out last playoff.

“You’ve heard guys talk about it, Chucky and Monny, and made comments in the media before about how we are all frustrated by how things went last year,” said Backlund, whose job will be to limit Scheifele’s damage.

“The bitter taste in our mouths is going to help us this year. We’ve been off for three months and anything can happen.”

Indeed, given the COVID-19 pause, all bets are off.

Every team in the tourney enters with clean slate – something the Flames should relish given the adversity they faced this season.

Lucic, a newcomer, said he’s convinced the bitterness and desire to seek redemption has been palpable amongst his teammates. He was added to bring the type of moxie, leadership and experience the Flames were short on last year.

“It’s time for us to prove we’re an elite hockey team,” said Tkachuk, whose club will wait until after Saturday morning’s skate to announce whether Cam Talbot or David Rittich will start.

“Not too many people are saying stuff about us, but we know if we play the right way you get this momentum going and the playoffs are all about momentum. We’ve just got to get the momentum going as long as we can. I feel our team looked pretty good coming out of the break. I’m very confident in this group and if we do the right things I hope we have a chance to prove people wrong.”

It might just be the perfect time to do just that.

NOTE: The NHL announced late Friday it has ruled that the outstanding trade condition in the Milan Lucic/James Neal trade has been determined. The Oilers will transfer their own 3rd round pick in either 2020 or 2021 To the Flames. The Oilers have until the beginning of the third round in the 2020 NHL Draft to make the decision on which pick will be transferred to the Flames.

The trade included a conditional third rounder to the Flames in 2020, only if the following two conditions were met:

• Neal has to score at least 21 goals this year.

• Lucic scores at least 10 fewer goals than Neal.

Neal finished with 19 goals and Lucic had eight, but the league decided the spirit of the conditions were satisfied by pro-rating their totals for an 82-game season, and giving the Oilers some flexibility on the delivery date.

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