When I said watch out for the Calgary Flames in the beginning of the NHL season, I was half-kidding. Granted, I thought that they did improve in the offseason with the addition of Jonas Hiller as goaltender, but with how tough the Western Conference was and how poorly Calgary did last season, to think they would make the playoffs with the team they had was a bit of a stretch.
But as the season went on, they showed me that I was not as crazy as I might have originally seemed. The team rallied behind a mix of young studs and veteran leaders, and it all culminated on Thursday, April 9, when they defeated the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 to not only eliminate the Kings from the playoffs, but solidify a spot for themselves in the playoffs as one of three teams to automatically make it in the Pacific Division.
The team has been led by veteran Jiri Hudler, who has the team lead goals (31, tied with Sean Monahan) and points (76), but he has also gotten help from youngsters as well. Rookie Johnny Gaudreau is making a very strong case for the Calder Trophy, posting 24 goals and 64 points on the season, while Monahan is having a great second season, with 31 goals and assists.
Another important factor for the Flames this season has been their defense. Veteran Mark Giordano was the heart and soul and a major contributor on the power play. When he went down with a season ending injury many thought that would extinguish the young Flames’ chances of making the playoffs, but it did just the opposite. Help from fellow defenseman Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and, later on in the season, Kris Russell filled the void Giordano left and kept the Flames in contention in the Pacific.
The aforementioned Hiller and Kari Ramo combination between the pipes has also been solid all season. Hiller posted a 26-19-4 record with a 2.36 goals against average and .918 save percentage while Ramo went 15-9-3 with a 2.60 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Sure the Flames don’t have the start power of other teams in the league and aren’t the first team on your mind to make it to the playoffs this season, but here they are. Through numerous key injuries and the odds against them, the Flames went from the second worst team in the West last season to a playoff team contending for the Stanley Cup. They play the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, a series I believe they can win. While the Canucks have an advantage with Ryan Miller in net, the defense in front of him is not what it used to be and has the potential to give a very quick and aggressive Flames team transition scoring chances.
The Canucks have a very good penalty kill and power play and are a fairly good scoring team. This will be a difficult task for a Flames team that is one of the worst in the league on the PK, but I think the Flames could push this series to seven games and take it. The sky is the limit for this Flames team this season, but I won’t say the Cup will be in Calgary this summer. I’ll save that prediction.