One of the first things Brad Larsen told his team prior to the season was that commitment wasn't optional. You're either all-in or you're out.
Very quickly, it became the standard and the minimum expectation for the Springfield Falcons, a team looking to erase a decade's worth of early offseasons and having to watch division rivals go deep in the Calder Cup playoffs. Larsen wanted things to change quickly, and it had to start with the team's attitude. After all, this was a Falcons franchise that hadn't won its division in 15 years and owned the longest playoff drought in the American Hockey League.
And while the end goal was obviously to qualify for the playoffs and win the division, the Falcons had to take it one step at a time - and that was the approach they stood by throughout a grueling 76-game regular season which culminated in a Northeast Division title, franchise-record 45 wins and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
So when the No. 7 seed Manchester Monarchs took the Falcons to overtime in each of their first two opening-round games, it came as no surprise, Larsen said. Manchester and Springfield played tight games all season long and the Monarchs' strict, disciplined style brought the best out of Larsen's group: sticking together and sticking to the game plan.
"This series was exactly what we expected," Larsen told BlueJackets.com. "I'm sure people looked at the seedings with a No. 2 against a No. 7 and thought differently, but we knew from playing them in the regular season that each game was a tight game, and we had some comebacks and late goals in there.
"Manchester has excellent goaltending, great structure and that's a team that's been to the playoffs in seven straight years, so they know how to play and win. You know they play the right way, they don't give up a lot and you have to play real good hockey just to get into the playoffs."
"You could see guys elevate their game and stick together, and there was a belief that we could win." - Falcons coach Brad Larsen
It was a stern test for the Falcons in the opening round, as the Monarchs played a close-to-the-vest, checking game that didn't exactly fall into the "exciting" category - but it's hard to argue with their postseason success.
The key for Springfield in the series was exactly what was preached on day one, Larsen said, and that was commitment to the way they do things: responsible, aggressive hockey.
"That was the mandate from day one: creating a responsible team," Larsen said. "Not a team that's high-risk or gets into track meet style of games going up and down the ice, chance for chance. We had our moments in that series when we weren't perfect by any means, but you have to understand there's another team playing desperate hockey, too. The more you play each other, the more they try to find ways to expose you and that's how it goes in the playoffs.
"There was no one in our lineup who didn't give effort or compete, and that's a real important thing to see. When the games got tighter, you could see guys elevate their game and stick together and there was a belief that we could win."
As a 13-year NHL veteran and part of the Colorado Avalanche's playoff run in 2002, Larsen knows well that postseason success is catalyzed by strong goaltending - something Curtis McElhinney has provided all season long.
He's been terrific in the postseason, as well, including a 41-save performance in Game 2 that included over a dozen stops in overtime. Not much as changed from the regular season for McElhinney, in that whenever the Falcons have needed a timely stop, he's been there to make it happen.
"He was one of the best players on the ice for either side, and really, both goalies played very well," Larsen said. "He made some big saves in overtime for us (in Game 2 before the game winner). There's no team that's going to win with average goaltending - it just doesn't happen. If you want to go deep into the playoffs at any level, a lot of it rides on quality goaltending and that's because it's a long series and you need your goalie to bail you out at times. Curtis certainly did that for us."
What's next for the Falcons? The most boring part, of course: waiting.
Springfield's second-round opponent has yet to be decided, as top-seeded Providence fought back from a 2-0 series deficit to Hershey to force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday night. If the Bears manage to win and pull off the upset, they are the Falcons' date for the Eastern Conference semifinals which would begin this weekend.
In the event of a Providence victory, the Syracuse Crunch would be the Falcons' next opponent - something Larsen has thought about in recent days. Before the Tampa Bay Lightning moved their AHL affiliate from Norfolk to Syracuse, the Norfolk Admirals won last year's Calder Cup title on the shoulders of a remarkable winning streak that carried over into the playoffs.
As the saying goes: in order to be the best, you have to beat the best - and that's exactly how Larsen views the Crunch.
"Any team you face now is going to be a dangerous team," Larsen said. "For me, Syracuse is the top dog in the league because they won it last year (Tampa's affiliate) with a lot of those players. They're the defending champions in my eyes, and that's the team you have to beat.
"That's the most exciting thing about the playoffs is the energy that it creates - there are no unimportant games. If you look at this series, there was a lot of growth for our team in a short time...learning how to win in tight situations, there's no substitute for that until you play it. It gives your team confidence that you can win in those moments, and that was real important for our group."