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37 FOR 37: WE'RE BAAAACK

Gio, Mony and Johnny led Flames to the post-season soiree after long six-year playoff drought

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

The evening they achieved the improbable had admittedly, a slightly surreal feeling to it. 

The Flames left validation unfashionably late, until Game 81, to book passage and a first-round series date against the Vancouver Canucks.

But after six seasons removed from the playoff party, the wait had been so worth it.

An intoxicating excitement, an infectious sense of the possible, permeated the city after the Flames delivered a 20-point regular-season improvement over the previous year.

A magic-carpet ride punctuated by improbable comebacks, 45 wins (the most since 2008-2009), the emergence of 20-year-old Sean Monahan into a top-class centre, a Norris Trophy-calibre turn by captain Mark Giordano before being injured in early February and the introduction of the pipe cleaner-thin, wondrous Johnny Gaudreau to a Calgary audience.

And they'd finally done it, astounding the pundits in reaching the playoffs, by knocking off the L.A. Kings, defending champs, no less, at the Scotiabank Saddledome and sending a city of over a million people off its collective nut.

"It was crazy," exulted Flames' coach Bob Hartley, following the 3-1 playoff-cementing victory over Darryl Sutter's crew on April 9th. "Guys were jumping. Sticks were flying everywhere.

"We could almost feel fans going through the glass ... It's a great feeling. To pull through in front of our fans was a classy way to do it.

"The most important thing about was we did it in front of our fans. That was unbelievable. What a welcome from our fans. Throughout the game, we felt their support.

"A feeling like this … it's tough to top."

Oh, but they would.

Only 16 days later, to boot, the night they progressed to the second round for the first time since their improbable march to the Stanley Cup finals scrolling back to 2004.

All of 11 years earlier.

Fittingly, 31-year-old centre Matt Stajan, after a dozen seasons of largely playoff-deprived playoff frustration, counted his first-ever post-season career goal to snap a 4-4 tie, inspire a 7-4 win and a six-game ouster of the favoured Canucks.

When Stajan scored at 15:34 of the third period, snapping the puck past Vancouver goaltender Ryan Miller, the saddle-shaped roof almost popped of the building's hinges.

"You feel it, for sure," said Stajan afterwards. "The energy is incredible. Even around town during the day. We feel it in here, too. It hasn't exactly been the way we wanted it since I've been here. Nobody's experienced playoffs here except Gio (Mark Giordano) and that was a long time ago.

"We want it. We want to prove we deserve to be here. We wanted to do it for our fans.

"Good for the city.

"It's long overdue."

The fairy tale journey would end in Round 2 and a five-game elimination by the Anaheim Ducks.

But the ride they'd taken everyone on lingered long in the imagination.

The unexpected ones usually do.

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