The LA net is empty. The clock ticks down slowly. 60 seconds. 59 seconds. Agony. 58 seconds. Gaudreau has the puck. 57 seconds. Gaudreau passes to Monahan. 56 seconds. Monahan passes to Hudler. 55 seconds. Hudler shoots. The puck is in. The stadium goes wild. Flames. Sirens. Lights. Screams. 3-1. The Calgary Flames have done it. They’ve eliminated the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings. They’ve clinched a playoff spot for the first time in 6 years. Finally. The Calgary Flames are returning to the playoffs.
I remember how the city felt in 2004. It was electric. There was this energy in the air, this jubilant belief that anything could happen, that miracles were real. It carried on for weeks, until that final, fateful game that sealed the Flames’ fate. Tampa Bay had won. The Flames had lost. After weeks and weeks of excruciating defeats and breathtaking wins, the magic was over. And yet we still celebrated. We knew our team were champions, even though they had no cup to lift. They had done the impossible. They had surpassed every single expectation. They had made their city proud, even in defeat.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this past season has felt a lot like that. This was a Flames club that nobody expected anything of. Everyone pegged us as a bottom dweller, a team that would sit at the bottom of the standings, vying for the right to draft Connor McDavid. Who could blame them? This was a team that finished 27th overall in the first year of their rebuild after losing franchise mainstays Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. To make matters worse, shortly before the season began, the Flames found out that their star draft pick, Sam Bennett, would need to undergo shoulder surgery and would be unable to play this season. Despite the fact that the Flames had a surprisingly decent season the year before (even though they finished near the bottom of the league), things were looking bleak. We all thought that they’d get worse before they got better. How wrong we were.
The Flames went 17-8-2 in the first 27 games of the season. They survived a potentially season-ending road trip at the start of the year against teams like the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks. They went 6-2-0 against divisional rivals. They were in a playoff spot. The fans were in nirvana. And then December happened, and the Flames spiralled down with an 8-game losing streak. All of the hope, all of the optimism, vanished. The pundits reminded us that they knew the Flames momentum was unsustainable. It had been a fun ride, but it had to end sometime. At least, that’s what they said.
When you’re playing a divisional rival like the Vancouver Canucks and you score upon yourself during a delayed penalty call because your own net is empty, it’s hard to imagine things getting any worse. Two days later, the Flames found themselves down 3-0 to another divisional rival, the Los Angeles Kings. The Flames hadn’t seen a win in over two weeks. I had given up on them. Thankfully, the team hadn’t given up on itself. Inexplicably, Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau got his first NHL-career hat trick, scoring 3 times to tie the game 3-3. What’s more surprising is that 2 of those goals came in the last few minutes of play with the Calgary goalie pulled. The 3rd goal came with mere seconds left on the clock. My friends and I went crazy. The Flames would go on to take the game in overtime, snagging their first win in 9 games. It has become known as the Christmas Miracle. Suddenly, the city began to believe in miracles again.
The rest of the season played out a lot like that game. Time and time again, against all odds, the Calgary Flames found ways to win. When Flames captain and potential Norris Trophy-candidate Mark Giordano was injured on February 25th, many, myself included, thought that was the end. 20 games later, the Flames have gone 12-5-3. Unbelievable. Statistically, they should be a bad team. Analysts will tell you again and again that on paper, this Flames team should not have made the playoffs. That’s because there’s no real way to quantify things like “heart” and “hard work”. Sometimes the victory just goes to the team that wants it more, the team that fights harder, the team that believes. I don’t say this to discredit the amazing accomplishments the players have had this season – Monahan and Gaudreau are shining young stars, some of the best the franchise has seen since Jarome Iginla joined the team; the Norris-worthy defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie are a huge part of the reason why the Flames are where they are; Jiri Hudler was the NHL’s second star for the month of March and has arguably become one of the most underrated players in the league; goaltenders Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have stood on their heads throughout the season, ensuring that the Flames always had a chance to win every night; unsung heroes like Lance Bouma, Mikael Backlund, Josh Jooris, David Jones, Matt Stajan, Dennis Wideman, Kris Russell, and others ensured that even when the Flames’ stars weren’t at their best, the team still had a chance to win. My point is that despite all of this talent, the Flames still shouldn’t have been as good as they’ve been. What separates the Flames from other teams in the league is that they never gave up. They never stopped working. They never quit. They never stopped believing. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the obstacles, they always fought. That’s why the Flames are in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That old feeling is back again. I felt it last Thursday, even before the game began. That energy. That belief that anything could happen. That’s how I knew that the Flames would win. I could feel that playoff hockey had returned to Calgary. I had bet against the Flames too many times this season and been proven wrong. I wasn’t going to let it happen again. Sure enough, the Flames did not disappoint, and here we are, on the brink of another incredibly improbable playoff run. We face Vancouver tonight in the first round. We’ve struggled against Vancouver in the past. Maybe, statistically speaking, we don’t have much of a chance. Maybe the Flames aren’t the smart pick to win. But I’ve been here before, and so have the Flames. We beat them in 2004, and we can do it again this year. I’ve learned my lesson about doubting this team. I’ve seen them do the impossible time and time again. In the words of Jay-Z, “difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week”. Or, in this case, 7 games. I believe they can do it, I believe that anything is possible, and I think that the rest of Calgary would agree with me.
GO FLAMES GO!