A lready comfortable in his role as one of the Calgary Flames’ leaders and spokesmen, Blake Coleman made it clear that he can also add “senior advisor” to his resume. “This is the time of year guys are asking a lot of questions,” says Coleman, who was brought in from the two-time defending Stanley Cup winners in Tampa Bay last summer. “You look at the Nashville game [an OT win for Calgary in late April], guys coming up asking if this is what to expect: ‘Is this playoff hockey?’”
“The physicality, the tight-checking, and the emotion were really close to playoff hockey,” he says, adding the raucous crowd to the list. “But the after-the-whistle stuff, the retaliating — the things that can hurt your team — the good teams will cut that out of their game and give them a better chance to win.”
Indeed, questions abound in a city with one of the NHL’s most abysmal playoff histories over the last three decades. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989, the Flames have advanced past the first round on just two occasions. So, despite piecing together a 50-win regular season for the ages, the Flames and their fans are painfully aware they have yet to accomplish anything of substance.
Head coach Darryl Sutter has hammered that point home endlessly, which has done plenty to reset his players and prepare them nightly. The coach who turned the franchise around over the past 14 months by adding beef, structure, accountability and hope was also key in bringing Cup winners to the group like Coleman, Trevor Lewis and Tyler Toffoli, who’ve been busy sharing their wisdom with a group that also includes past champion Milan Lucic.
None of those former champs were here three years ago, when the Flames punctuated a Western Conference regular-season title with a five-game faceplant against Colorado. The sting of that loss has hovered over this group ever since, far more than the first-round collapse against Dallas in the bubble two years back.
Matthew Tkachuk believes both experiences serve his Pacific Division-winning club well as they prepare for another opening round dance with the Stars starting Tuesday. “Our team played solid and probably good enough to put ourselves in a better position at the beginning of that [2019-20] series against Dallas, but they were more prepared and probably a better team at that point,” says Tkachuk, who was sidelined in Game 2 of that series with a concussion. “Looking back, that might have been a good thing that that happened to us because I don’t think we were fully built for it then. I think we’re better off now.”
It’s interesting to note that, with a few exceptions, the core of this club no longer bristles when asked about the failures in their recent playoff history. “I think you have to carry past losses, because you have to find a way to learn from it,” says Tkachuk, who’s coming off a 42-goal, 104-point campaign that shattered career highs. “That last year in the bubble was a different experience from the normal, but the year before that against Colorado, I don’t know if we were necessarily ready for playoff hockey against a team like that — we weren’t. I just think we limped in a little bit, resting guys and doing all of that stuff. It’s hard to just flip a switch in your first game.
“We have been treating our last games like playoff games and it’s just going to carry on. This year I think, mentally, we’ll be more ready for it.”
This group has proven to be sound of mind, bouncing back after losses, scoring the first goal more than any other team and compiling stats at both ends of the ice that landed the club top 5 in almost everything. Only one team had a better road record.
Three years ago, the Flames leaned on skill alone, and it was nowhere near enough when push came to shove, the whistles were put away and brute force trumped soft hands. Players and personnel have that in mind when they say they believe this team has the brawn to insulate, protect and empower the NHL’s top line of Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm. “Honestly, I just think it’s a full depth thing with our full lineup — guys that we brought in, a bigger team,” says Tkachuk. “There’s a lost art. All the past teams that have won are big teams and physical. There’s obviously speed and skill on each team, but that’s not how playoff hockey is. We have a big defensive core and some guys can set the tone with that. And we have an unbelievable goalie.”
None of the Flames’ success this season is possible without a backbone like Jacob Markstrom, who paced the Flames with the third-lowest goals-against average in the loop. The stellar numbers he posted are a testament to the team’s defensive-minded approach and belief in the truth of Sutter’s continued reminders that defence wins championships. The focus is forechecking and possession, but the reminder is to always be on the right side of the puck.
The approach worked in the regular season, as the club dominated all year with 5-on-5 success that became the team’s hallmark. If indeed power plays are harder to come by in playoffs, the Flames’ unparalleled success at even strength could prove to be the difference in a tough series.
Confidence is also higher than ever, thanks to a season-ending 10-2-2 run in which the Flames proved they could match the intensity of far more desperate clubs, and build their mojo as the spring approached. But perhaps nothing did more for them than the 5-4 overtime comeback in Smashville, where Tkachuk’s game-tying goal with 0.1 seconds left might have been overshadowed by the moxie the group showed in an emotional game that featured two successful heavyweight fights.
If there was any question this team can play post-season hockey, it was answered against the Preds. “What it does is show guys in the room you’re willing to stand up for each other and battle for each other,” says Lucic, who anchors an experienced fourth line of bangers with Lewis and Brett Ritchie. “When I think about it — even though no one saw it and I’m not blaming anyone for it — when the [Jake] Muzzin/Tkachuk thing happened with the puck flipping, Chucky had a right to feel no one had his back in that situation. But then you have a night like the other night when everyone is standing up for Chucky and he’s standing up for other guys, [and] you play harder for one another because you show you have one another’s back. To be honest, they wanted to come at us and we answered the bell and that’s something we need to do moving forward.”
Lucic has long cited the playoff heartache that preceded his Stanley Cup-winning year in Boston as being integral to the winning process. Coleman says a late-season series of punch-ups against the Panthers prepared the Lightning for defending their crown last season. In short, the past matters in terms of shaping the future.
“You’ve got to get away from, ‘Why they didn’t win a series’ or ‘Why they weren’t ready in [2018-19]’ — well, they were a bunch of kids,” says Sutter. “It’s the next step. It’s the first time they’ve played on a team with a defensive commitment or the checking commitments. So, the next step is play your game and go from there.”
Gaudreau’s game hasn’t been good enough in past playoffs — a significant talking point again this season. However, the narrative has changed for many who believe that the support he has with two stellar linemates and the all-for-one team toughness can allow him to continue dominating like he has all season. “He’s an unbelievable player — one of the best in the world — who can take over games,” says Tkachuk. “He’s done it in games before for us. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
So is Sutter: “Probably one of the big reasons [they’ll be better] would be that they got their asses kicked, and they are proud guys and good players. There’s a big storm coming here this week.”
For his part, Gaudreau has learned from past mistakes, transforming himself into a two-way player at Sutter’s insistence. The change resulted in a 115-point season that saw everyone on his line score 40 goals. Toffoli, Mikael Backlund and 35-goal man Andrew Mangiapane give the Flames significant secondary scoring, while Coleman and Calle Jarnkrok have helped Dillon Dube enter the playoffs on a significant scoring binge.
All six blue liners had career seasons, spearheaded by Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, who will face the Stars’ top line all series long. Chris Tanev and Oliver Kylington are a formidable second pairing in a sextet that accumulated the third-most points from defencemen in the league. Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov are expected to lead physically, as the faces of the group, which is interesting given that it was the big Russian who first called the Flames “easy to play against” when his Avalanche stomped on Calgary three years ago.
“Just playing playoff-style hockey all season long has got us ready for the next step for this team,” says Lucic. “Just talking to guys about the differences between 2018-19 and now. They almost felt like they peaked too early. We did what we were supposed to do this year, but you kind of forget everyone starts at zero again. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but the goal is actually to win Game 1 and go from there.
“The main thing for the learning curve for this group has been more to look at what the task at hand is on a daily basis instead of looking at the big picture. That kind of keeps things in perspective. One thing we have to continue doing is playing to the identity of the team we built this year. Ultimately that will give us success.”
The Flames were 2-0-1 against the Stars this season but certainly don’t feel like they dominated the team that ousted them two years ago en route to the Cup Final. “We’re looking forward to playing a team that’s had our number and played very well against us and has carried the play mostly every game against us,” says Tkachuk. “We’re going to have to prove it to a team that’s been one of the best teams in the league at this time of the year for the last number of years. So, going into this series, they’ve done it, most of their guys have done it. We haven’t, so that puts them at a big advantage going into the series. We’ve got to prove it.”
They certainly do.
“This is the proving time of year — a time when players show up,” says Coleman, born and raised in Texas. “The games get harder and you either up your game or back down. We have a lot of proud players in our room and now they have some experience to lean on. Guys who had tremendous regular seasons are going to have to take it up even more. We have a talented top line but we win as a committee.
“I think we really believe in our room we have what it takes to be successful come playoff time.”