From year two of the rebuild to the second round of the playoffs: Recapping and eulogizing the 2014-15 Calgary Flames

From Paul Byron to Johnny Gaudreau. In a year where there was so much concern over size, Byron opened the Flames’ scoring, and Gaudreau closed it.

From Jonas Hiller to Karri Ramo. With no 70+ game starter since Miikka Kiprusoff, Hiller made the first save of the season, and Ramo the last in mad scramble.

From Johnny Gaudreau’s natural hat trick putting a sharp end to the Flames’ eight-game losing streak and giving them a happy holidays to Mark Giordano’s torn bicep just before the trade deadline.

From league average goaltending alone netting extra wins to league high shooting percentage taking care of much of the rest. From being wildly out-possessed to the discovery of previously unthought of depth players, still in just their rookie years.

From the second year of a rebuild to a victory in the second round of the playoffs: the former, long delayed; the latter, achieved after 11 years.

From defying the odds to finally succumbing to them, but not without a lot of clawing, scrabbling, and vicious fighting along the way.

Expectations vs. reality

I was excited for the 2014-15 season the same reason I was excited for 2013-14: after far too long a time without the Flames, they were back, and finally, I was going to get to watch them again, no matter how terrible they were.

And I was expecting something honest to goodness terrible. Sam Bennett became the highest ever draft pick in Flames history, and the team hadn’t done enough to combat that. While there was no chance they were going to be Connor McDavid bad – not if Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Mikael Backlund had anything to say about it, let alone the sheer strength of goaltending upgrade Jonas Hiller brought – they were probably still going to be really bad.

Who was going to score? Jiri Hudler was a nice complimentary piece, but Mike Cammalleri was gone, and Sean Monahan was set to regress. Johnny Gaudreau had yet to establish himself, and doubts about his size persisted throughout the part of the hockey world that had simply not been paying attention.

The part where Mason Raymond got a hat trick against the Edmonton Oilers was pretty awesome, though.

But no matter what everyone said, the Flames persisted. Who’s going to lead in scoring? Well, with 11 10-goal scorers, everybody, apparently. Why is a defenceman leading the entire team? Because he’s the best in the entire league, that’s why, just accept it. Why is it that a quarter of the way through the season, the Flames can take over the lead for the Pacific Division?

Why is it they aren’t going away?

Players bought in, they got the bounces, they got timely saves and even timelier goals. Rookies and sophomores proved to be better than expected. A veteran overshadowed by stars he played with in Detroit proved he was just as good as them. Another one, always underestimated at every turn in his career, picked up the heavier minutes and was eventually rewarded with a series-winning goal.

A group of children with a handful of cast aside veterans had fun playing hockey, and turned it into something historic.

Where they came from

The first “oh god please just win OH GOD PLEASE JUST WIN” moment I had this season came before Josh Jooris even set foot on NHL ice.

It was the fifth game of the season, and the Flames were coming in with a respectable 2-2 record. Then, on the second game of a back-to-back, they were ordered to take on one of the early favourites: the Chicago Blackhawks.

They did not fare well.

They were eviscerated, actually.

But then, halfway through the game, Dennis Wideman took a shot from the point, and it went five hole through Corey Crawford, and the Flames, for no apparent reason, on just their 15th shot attempt of the game (the Hawks had 52 by this point), took the lead. (Fun fact: you know how in the Flames’ playoff opening video, there’s a moment where one of them takes a shot and they zoom in on a CGI puck with the 2015 playoffs logo? The Wideman goal from this game is the one they used.)

Once they took the lead, as the game went on, things were less, “Oh god they are so mismatched they can’t handle this team,” and more, “I don’t care. I don’t even care. But you HAVE to get this win for Hiller, at this point you just HAVE to.” And it was honestly gut wrenching to see the Blackhawks score on the powerplay in the third to tie the game.

But then, in the dying minute of overtime, TJ Brodie rushed the puck up the ice, Mikael Backlund with him every step of the way. Nobody intercepted the pass, and Backlund got Hiller the win with an overtime snipe. (Anyone else feeling like they could really get used to Backlund overtime goals?)

Hiller saw 96 shot attempts come his way, he stopped 49 of 50 pucks that actually reached him, and inexplicably, the Flames won a game they really, really should not have.

That was just the fifth game of the season. Hiller had yet to get a win, Gaudreau had yet to get a goal, the entire mythos surrounding the Calgary Flames’ third periods had yet to be born. We didn’t know anything at that point. The only thing in that moment was: “Oh god, please just win this, it will be so heartbreaking if you’ve come this far, defied the odds this much, only to come away with a loss.”

That’s when the season really took off.

Rookies, rookies, rookies

The next game, Gaudreau was a healthy scratch, and thanks to a David Jones injury, Jooris made his NHL debut. He also scored his first NHL goal. He later went on to bounce all over the lineup, from second line centre to wherever the heck he fit in, and actually ended up playing surprisingly well throughout the entire year. Turned out the strong training camp wasn’t a fluke.

In game seven, fresh from his pressbox return, Gaudreau scored. Then he got an assist. Then, after his first five pointless games that left old curmudgeons furious about the whole “Johnny Hockey” moniker, he went on to score 24 goals and 64 points over 75 games. That got him a tie for the rookie scorer lead and a finalist for rookie of the year in a year filled with a very strong class of young’uns. All the while having to combat the fact that he was very tiny and people were very confident, for no apparent reason, that he wouldn’t be able to make plays against actual, established, big NHLers. (This is the part where you ignore that he finished his playoffs tied for ninth in scoring. You know, because he’s so tiny and helpless.)

Every non-Monahan centre got hurt, so in stepped Markus Granlund. And in stayed Markus Granlund, to the tune of 48 NHL games and three playoff games, because people didn’t stop getting hurt and Granlund was the next best option so he kind of just had to stick around. And accidentally ended up out-scoring his much higher regarded older brother for a period of time.

Joni Ortio had a horrific period of travel just to get to Calgary and sit on the bench and watch Hiller make an absolute mess of things against the Florida Panthers. With Ramo injured courtesy of an ill-advised charge and a Raphael Diaz knee to the head, the Flames’ top signed goalie prospect was the only answer, and he almost wasn’t able to make it there. Except then he did, and then he got the start on the second of the back-to-back – and, awesomely enough for him, the start of a five-game Pacific swing before the All-Star break – and… got a shutout. So he got the next start, and he won. And the next. And the next. And the only place he didn’t win was in Anaheim, because we haven’t burned that entire city to the ground yet, because Calgary people are very nice people who do not raze locales after hockey losses, as warranted as it may be.

Up came Micheal Ferland, defeating every odd against him only to get concussed after just two periods of NHL action. Down went Micheal Ferland. Up came Micheal Ferland again. In went Micheal Ferland, starting to stake his claim as a regular NHLer from the end of February onwards. We accidentally messed up his first name as Kevin Bieksa irrelevantly butchered his last, and then oops, he established himself as a smart, physical player with latent goal scoring talent who drove the Vancouver Canucks absolutely mad and poured as much salt on their wounds as he possibly could.

Also, after five months of recovering from shoulder surgery and one month of destroying Ontario-based junior hockey, Sam Bennett popped up, demanded we look at him, and probably get used to him being around for a long, long while yet.

That’s ignoring the part where approximately just eight players on the roster had even existed for three decades on this earth.

The season ended, part 1

Prior to December, the Flames had never gone two games in a row without a point. Entering the third month of the season, they were still challenging for the division, much to the confusion of everyone and excitement to those who love a good underdog story.

And then it happened.

After an absurd Ramo shutout streak and Bob Hartley’s 400th coaching win, the Flames outplayed a team – in this case, the Sharks – and had a goalie steal a game from them.

But hey, no sweat. They did everything right in that game. It was one of the rare few good signs, and with their next games being against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, the Flames were sure to continue responding to losses with outstanding efforts.

Except they lost.

And then they lost again.

And again.

And another three times.

Forget challenging for the division; the Flames were slipping out of their playoff spot. Regression had officially set in, and while the Flames still weren’t Connor McDavid bad, another high pick – maybe not Bennett or Monahan high, but still high – was very much on the horizon.

And then it somehow got simultaneously worse and better. 

Better because, hey, they got a point! They lost in overtime, but the pointless skid was finally over!

Worse because, uh, if they hadn’t literally scored on themselves – courtesy of a delayed penalty call, no goalie in net, and a horrific bounce and nobody far back enough to stop it – they actually would have won in regulation. And it was a game against the friggin’ Canucks. Who own goals against the Canucks? The Flames on an eight-game losing streak, that’s who.

And even worse because IT WAS CHRISTMAS.

It’s actually even worse than it sounds. The Flames had just one game left before the holiday break, and over the month of December, they’d gone from happily, comfortably fighting other teams for a playoff spot to completely bottoming out and being on the verge of having this little miracle season end as the halfway mark was approaching. So losing nine games in a row, and then having to stew over that while everyone else around you wants you to have fun and get into the holiday spirit and hey stop being so grumpy you can’t do a thing about it now anyway? That could have been a backbreaker.

Being down 3-0 to the Los Angeles Kings in the ninth game, and it was sure looking like a very unhappy holidays was on the horizon. 

And then, after Brandon Bollig somehow drew a penalty on Jeff Carter, Johnny Gaudreau broke the shutout bid.

With an entire period to go, there was a glimmer of hope on the Flames’ horizon. Maybe Christmas could not suck? But probably not; not the way the month had decided to go. And as time ticked down and they failed to produce, it really looked like we were just going to have to tough out a winless Christmas and hope for better things on the horizon of a new year.

But then, with Hiller pulled, Gaudreau got another goal.

And then, with Hiller pulled again, Gaudreau banked it in off of Drew Doughty’s skate, jumped into Curtis Glencross in celebration, and Glencross just kind of held him there as the other Flames congregated around the midget who had just singlehandedly brought them back from the brink.

He almost made it rooster status in overtime, but it was Giordano driving the net that eventually made Jonathan Quick break his stick in one of his several patented tantrums, thereby saving the Flames’ Christmas and, maybe, quite possibly, season.

They were going to go into the holiday break on a nine-game losing streak and very much out of the playoffs.

Gaudreau, who it should be noted remains far too small to play professional hockey, scored a natural hat trick, two goals in the dying minutes of regulation.

The captain, and defenceman who was leading an entire team in scoring, finished it off, and everyone got to go into Christmas happy. And then, with two wins over the Oilers and another nonsense win over the Kings, 2014 got to finish happy, too.

Third period nonsense

As the season went on, the Flames became famous, league-wide, for third period comebacks. Going into the third down two goals? Watch out. Down three? Get worried, opposing team. Down four? That, uh, actually almost happened that one time, because when it’s after the trade deadline and you’re still one of the absolute worst possession teams in the league and yet totally in control of your own playoff destiny, by that point you just accept that the Flames are straight up magic.

When did the sorcery start? Pretty early, actually: on Halloween night. 

Okay, so facing the Nashville Predators, the Flames were only down by one going into the third, and Jiri Hudler very quickly got the game-tying goal. But then the Flames took it a step further, and scored another two goals over the next four minutes, shocking the Preds and ending up with a 4-3 win.

A few games later, the Flames found themselves in a bizarre matinee in Florida, trading goals with the Panthers and ultimately ending up heading into the third down 4-3. They’d come back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits in the second to make it there, but still found themselves trailing, unable to take the lead.

That’s when one of the biggest triggers of the season happened: Bob Hartley put Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau on the same line.

They scored two goals. Lance Bouma ended up with a third, and another three-goal third period happened. (Monahan and Gaudreau wouldn’t be properly united for a few months yet, but in that one little comeback against the Panthers, the seeds had been planted.)

A week later, they scored three in the third against the Ottawa Senators.

In their very next game, they scored three in the third against the Anaheim Ducks.

Two weeks after the Florida nonsense, and a week after the third period Ottawa outburst, the Flames entered the third period against the New Jersey Devils down 3-1. It ended up being a 4-2 game halfway through the final regulation frame, and things looked kinda hopeless until, with under three minutes left, Hudler brought the Flames within one.

And Glencross tied the game with five seconds to go. The Flames won in a shootout.

All of a sudden, the Flames – who had been doing a decent enough job of racking up enough wins to stay somewhat relevant in the standings – were going HAM in the third, and all of a sudden, no lead was safe against them. 

Colorado one goal leads eventually disappeared thanks to Wideman with just over a minute to go and Monahan in overtime. Gaudreau got a hat trick because he is Johnny Hockey and he willed it so. The Flames were somehow down against the Oilers before Bouma and Colborne forced a tie, and Jooris scored the final goal of 2014.

The Buffalo Sabres, who had inexplicably beaten the Flames in regulation earlier, fell victim to three third period goals by guys named Josh, Joe, and Johnny. The Oilers, again up on the Flames in the third period, crumbled to the tune of four third period goals, including desperate attempts to get Bouma a hat trick. The Boston Bruins saw their 3-0 lead evaporate and ultimately get crushed under the most bizarre goal of TJ Brodie’s career. The Red Wings forfeited their 2-0 lead after five straight were scored against them. 

The Senators nearly completely blew it in what should have been among the most hopeless of games.

Everything should have been safe against one of the statistically worst teams in the league. Nothing ever was.

The season ended, part 2

February 25, 2015. The Flames were still in the thick of the playoff race, but the deadline was coming up, and Glencross absolutely needed to be traded. Ramo, too, except Ortio had hurt himself and the Flames had no other options, so they had to stick with him.

The Flames were coming off three straight losses, and desperately needed a win to keep themselves in the playoff race. 

They got that win.

But only after Mikael Backlund flipped the puck over the glass while trying to preserve a one-goal lead; and on the kill, Sean Monahan got TJ Brodie the puck in the defensive zone and Brodie flipped it down the ice for his 10th of the season.

And that only happened when Giordano went down.

And didn’t play another second of hockey.

Mark Giordano, the Flames’ captain, leading scorer, and shoo-in for the Norris he deserved the season before and more than deserved the current season.

It looked okay at first. He even took the warmups the next game two days later, but ultimately, Corey Potter subbed in. 

Potter for Giordano is a trade absolutely nobody would make.

The trade deadline came, Sven Baertschi was finally freed from the confines of an organization that had given up on him a season and a half ago, and then the bombshell dropped: Mark Giordano’s season was over with a torn bicep. 

The elite Giordano-Brodie pairing was done, forcing all other Flames defencemen to be exposed. David Schlemko was picked up off waivers – and a shootout goal soon after made it clear the claim was more than worth it – but it wasn’t anything close to a replacement. 

Absolutely no team in the league would have been able to cope with the loss of Girodano, but the Flames? Statistically one of the worst already, and that was with him? The ride was fun – it went on significantly longer than it had any right to – but it was over. A quarter of the season left plenty of time to bottom out, which was surely the direction the Flames were going to head in without one of their best players. But it was fine. They’d have the best of both worlds: a pretty fun season, and a pretty decent draft pick to boot. No shame in that.

At which point the Flames’ 20-year-old centre, flanked by a non-superstar from the Detroit organization and someone way too small to play in the NHL, went ahead and became the best line in all of hockey.

The Los Angeles Kings

The Flames had already faced faced every other Pacific Division team – a couple, multiple times – before they finally met the Los Angeles Kings for the first time in late December.

The two teams, polar opposites – top of the league in possession vs. bottom, recent multiple Cup wins vs. a six-year playoff drought, high expectations vs. none whatsoever – ended up becoming a touch too intertwined over the season.

It took them ages to meet, and when they did, Gaudreau stole the entire show. A week later, and two goals in a minute gave them another win, as one of the supposed worst teams in the league was looking good over one of the supposed best. 

A month later, Monahan took away the Kings’ third period 1-0 lead, and Wideman scored an overtime winner nobody was aware of to take a stranglehold on the season series.

The next time the two teams met, it was February, the Flames were still in a playoff spot for some reason, and Quick was tired of throwing tantrums. The Flames attempted to make a go of it, but fact was, the Kings showed who they could be, and completely annihilated the Flames, scoring three goals in the third to the tune of Calgary’s own nonsense and putting a firm stamp on the fact that they would not get swept this season. The Flames were helpless to come back, and the wacky wins from earlier looked a little sadder, a little luckier.

And then, as it so happened, the Flames and Kings ended up fighting for the same playoff spot.

There was no way the Kings weren’t going to make it. They were one of the best teams of recent history. They had two Cups in three years. And they had finally turned things on, elevating above the doldrums of the regular season they tended to exhibit and taking other teams by storm.

Until… one small problem.

They lost to the Edmonton Oilers.

In regulation.

With two games to go in the season, and the Flames, holding the final playoff spot, firmly in charge of their own fate.

You want expectations vs. reality? The Flames should never have been in control of their own playoff fate, and certainly not in April. But they were. The unfortunate reality of the situation? The Kings were the better team, and while they were in tough, if any team could do it, it was them.

Johnny Gaudreau scored.

Jiri Hudler scored two minutes later.

In the first period.

Gaudreau, to Monahan, to Hudler, and with 50 seconds still technically remaining, the Kings’ season was over. The image that most sticks with me from this moment was that one camera angle on the Flames’ bench that could only catch the outskirts of the celebration, Joe Colborne and Mikael Backlund bouncing up and down non-stop just on the outside of the pile of red jerseys all congregated around one another.

A few thoughts on that:

How Colborne must have felt, having grown up a Flames fan, lived through 2004 excitement and heartbreak, and it having been a part of his childhood team throughout this obscene run that somehow, against every odd in the book, had them eliminate their playoff drought and usher them right back in with the big boys.

How Mason Raymond and Kris Russell must have felt.

And how Backlund, who only joined the Flames via draft stock and yet fully embraced the city of Calgary, felt. With the iconic veterans gone, Backlund became one of the longer-tenured Flames, having only just come on board right when the Flames stopped making the post-season, and growing up on fruitless playoff teams that desperately believed if you could reach the bare minimum of success – eighth place – you could do anything, only to fail to even be eighth.

Two groups of kids: the five on the ice hugging one another in the corner, and the 14 jumping up and down in a huddled mass together on the bench.

The season could have ended against the Kings, and instead, the Kings’ season ended in Calgary.

Bonus hockey to the tune of 11 games

Everything after that empty net goal against LA was just gravy. You keep things in perspective: they never should have made it this far this fast. Whatever happens from here on out, it’s been a beyond incredible year, and it can be described as absolutely nothing but a success. Whatever follows, this was the best year to follow the Flames in… about 11 of them.

It’s easy to look at it in the abstract, but then you go back to day-to-day life, and it’s game day, and you have somehow just spent an entire 82-game season pleading with this team to win, and there’s no real off switch for that.

So you keep figuring, this is all I wanted, everything else is just a bonus, but at the same time, you’re still thinking, “No, damnit, I need you to win.”

The first playoff game did not even feel like a real playoff game to me. Rather, it was just an extension of what we’d already gotten: 82 games of nonsense fun, and here was game 83 of the season. Nothing was really at stake, it was just another game.

Right up until Kris Russell scored with half a minute to go to take the lead, and then, all of a sudden, it hit me: this was a playoff game. A playoff game the Flames were about to win.

Everything was playoffs after that. Game 2’s festivities against the Canucks really helped cement it, and the absolute domination the home games brought only reinforced it, to the tune of a 3-1 lead and “the Flames have only made it out of the first round once in my lifetime, is this seriously about to happen?”

A 3-0 Game 6 deficit, a four-goal third period, and we finally had the answer: the first Flame to score a series winner since Martin Gelinas, currently standing behind the bench, is fourth line centre and babysitter throughout the year Matt Stajan, in the 31-year-old’s first ever, long awaited playoff goal.

That was roughly when the season ended, because the Flames had absolutely no chance against the Ducks, and it showed. Still, though, they did what other playoff teams failed to do: they beat them. They got a second round victory.

The Backlund that had just been jumping up and down on the outskirts of the bench pile, the Backlund who only came on board right when the Flames stopped being notable in any capacity, threw his own first playoff goal into the pile, and the final victory of the 2014-15 season was a memorable one.

It still stings now, but it’s also almost a relief that it’s over. There’s only so long you can hold on to the faintest of hopes for, and while the regular season never went away and the Flames were lucky to draw the perfect opponent in the first round, at some point, your hopes get too unrealistic and it gets too crushing when they don’t come to fruition. 

It could have gone longer.

It didn’t.

But it still went a very, very long time. 

At the end of the 2013-14 season, we bid the Flames a thankful goodbye on game 82. It was a nice enough ride, there were some cool positives, but ultimately, wow, it was bad and that fourth overall pick was more than earned.

At the end of the 2014-15 season, rather than saying goodbye to the Flames on April 11, we got to spend an extra month with them, taken through a journey of fiery rages and brawls, accusatory finger pointing, the most soul-crushing, nightmarish moment as 2015 camera angles channeled 2004 counterparts, and the absolute highest of highs: a wild swing of emotions that bled into personal lives and reenergized an entire city into a hub of pure red.

Closing thoughts

Kudos if you’ve stuck with me this long. There will be shorter pieces out there, but this season broke the barriers of both sense and entertainment, and the sheer insanity it wrought deserves to be laid out there. And honestly, writing this has been cathartic, because as proud as I am of this team, I’m still sad I have to wait a few months yet to see them take to the ice again, the struggle to make the playoffs reset to zero.

So, this is where I’m at.

I’m not from a hockey family. Both of my parents are from Ontario. My mom likes it when the local sports team does well; my dad is a straight up CFL guy. I went to the occasional Flames game way before – thanks, free tickets from Mom’s work – but didn’t know any of the players, and didn’t really care. I only knew the Flames as “that hockey team we have that loses all the time.”

Then, in seventh grade, I watched the entire city collectively lose it, and jumped on board, because why not? Then it turned out that hey, that hockey team we have that loses all the time can be kinda fun. Hockey can be kinda fun. Scratch that, hockey is the most fun. Watching every game, being excited to wake up in the morning because the Herald was going to feature the Flames on the front page for two straight months, getting out of math homework because the Flames had a game that night. (That never worked for science homework, though; Mr. Miller kept telling us that we had time to do it before the game. He was right, but it wasn’t cool.)

Accidentally developing a lifelong obsession with and love of Finnish goalies because I heard my friends talking about how awesome Jarome Iginla was, and yeah, I totally agreed, but why aren’t we talking about Miikka Kiprusoff? Sure, I don’t know that much about hockey, but from what I can tell he’s kind of a big part of this too? So okay, he isn’t getting any recognition, he’s my favourite of all time now. (He still is. The two shutouts I got to witness in person helped.) 

Day-to-day life now scheduled in “the Flames play tonight” and “the Flames do not play tonight”. When my favourite players were Iggy, Kipper, Gelly, and whoever got the most recent game winner. Being there when Gelinas eliminated the Red Wings. Shrieking at Monty’s goal. Being angry that Robyn Regehr got the final goal against the Sharks, not Kiprusoff. Keyboard smashing to my friend when Saprykin scored. Developing a lifelong hatred of Tampa Bay that will never die because oh my god I hate them so much it was in. Spending the final minutes yelling with my friend when Conroy scored and Leopold nearly had it.

I became a sports fan because literally all I wanted was to relive those two months in 2004 that accidentally completely reshaped my entire life, and I never got to do that again until this year, and it was every bit as horribly awesome as I remembered it.

I do a bit of work in minor hockey in Calgary now, and at the start of the season, when I asked kids who their favourite player was, or who they wanted to be, the responses were quiet, uncertain, and the only vocalizations I really got were, “Jarome Iginla… No, Sidney Crosby.”

When I was asking kids at the end of the season, the responses were all, without hesitation, “Sean Monahan,” and, “Johnny Gaudreau.” 

Within one season, I saw a complete turnaround from disinterest and uncertainty as to who these kids’ favourite players were to very enthusiastic, immediate responses. They don’t necessarily know what corsi is, or what regression might mean, but they had so much fun with this season they already have their new heroes picked out, whether the Flames can keep this up or not.

I think they’re doomed to regress.

I think, if they have a smart off-season, they won’t; and while this season truly was an anomaly, history may not end up judging it that way.

But most of all: I’m sad that it’s over, because even though I doubted them the entire season, I had so much fun over these past seven months.

In year one of the rebuild, saying goodbye was almost a relief.

In year two of the rebuild, we got an extra month, and saying goodbye was bittersweet, but entirely worth it.