CALGARY, Alberta (AP) Small, fast and larcenous, the last Calgary team to reach the NHL playoffs in 2015 was a lightning-in-a-bottle squad that earned a quarter of their points when trailing after two periods. Reaching the second round for the first time in 11 years was considered a surprise.
The 2017 Flames are bigger, meaner and more seasoned in playoff experience as they get ready for Game 1 of their first-round series on the road Thursday night in Anaheim. Calgary had one of the best records in the NHL after Nov. 15 (40-23-3).
”We actually deserve to be here this year,” said winger Johnny Gaudreau, who made his playoff debut in 2015. ”That first year, a lot of comebacks, a lot of, I don’t want to say luck, but a lot of good opportunities to come back in games helped us get there. This year I think we just played all around a better game.”
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Last summer’s signings of Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg, winners of three Stanley Cups between them in Chicago, brought a combined 136 games of postseason experience to Calgary. Dougie Hamilton, in his second season with the Flames, and Michael Stone acquired in February, give Calgary size and muscle on the back end to complement captain Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
”Obviously we’re a little heavier, but I think we’re deeper on both the front and back end,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. ”Our goaltending has been great for a long time now.”
The Flames were unsettled in goal two years ago, flip-flopping between Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller through the regular season into the playoffs. Brian Elliott, acquired in a trade with St. Louis at last year’s draft, had a rough start to the season but is now Calgary’s undisputed No. 1. He went 19-9-2 with a save percentage of .919 and goals-against average of 2.29 after Jan. 1.
”He’s been really dialed in here, really this second half,” general manager Brad Treliving said. ”He’s a lot like our team, trying to find his footing early on. We’re going to lean on him as all teams do at this time of year in that position.”
Elliott also brings playoff experience after backstopping the Blues to the conference final last year.
”You just want to make the saves you should and a couple you shouldn’t,” Elliott said.
The Flames have come a long way from the team that went 4-5-1 in October. Since Nov 15, only Washington, Columbus and Minnesota had more wins than Calgary (40). An 8-2 record in March indicates Calgary is peaking at the right time.
Twenty-somethings Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund have gained two years’ worth of strength and maturity since their first tastes of the post-season.
”I think we’re better equipped,” Treliving said. ”I think our team is better. We’ve got young people that have been through this experience. Our team is a little more mature. You don’t have as many people going through it for the first time.”