After a lengthy absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Calgary Flames kick-started what was expected to be a long and painful rebuild by shipping out longtime franchise face Jarome Iginla and top defenceman Jay Bouwmeester prior to the 2013 NHL Trade Deadline.
The first full season moving in a new direction saw the Flames, not surprisingly, finish 26th overall.
But the second year saw the Flames' prospects blossom into solid NHL players and blend with the remaining veterans into one of the League's surprise teams.
The Flames assured themselves of their first postseason berth in six years Thursday with a 3-1 victory against the Los Angeles Kings, a victory that also knocked the defending Stanley Cup champs out of the postseason.
Here are five reasons the Flames are back in the playoffs:
THE KIDS STEP UP
In trading Iginla and Bouwmeester, the Flames began what was expected to be a long and, at times, painful rebuild. Instead, Calgary clinched its first playoff berth since 2009 thanks largely in part to young players such as 20-year-old Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, 21.
In the past 20 seasons only 10 players have had at least 30 goals and 30 assists in the same season before their age-21 season. Among them are Sidney Crosby (twice), Marian Gaborik (twice), Steven Stamkos (twice), Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Ilya Kovalchuk, Malkin, Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Jeff Skinner.
Monahan is the latest addition to the group.
Center - CGY
Goals: 31 | Assists: 31 | Pts: 62
Shots: 191 | +/-: 8
Gaudreau, along with fellow first-year players Filip Forsberg and Mark Stone, joined just 10 other rookies to eclipse 60 points in the past decade. That group also includes Nicklas Backstrom, Brad Boyes, Crosby, Patrick Kane, Kopitar, Nathan MacKinnon, Malkin, Ovechkin, Skinner and Paul Stastny.
"For me, personally, it was just trying to play as many games as I possibly could," Gaudreau said. "We have a skilled team here and I knew coming in we had a special group. It’s exciting for me There’s a lot of guys in this locker room who haven’t had many playoff games. I’m fortunate to help be a part of this process and help get my first playoff games in too as well."
But by no means have they been the only contributors. Josh Jooris, signed as an unrestricted free agent, chipped in a dozen goals. Markus Granlund, a second-round pick in 2011 who split time between Calgary and the Adirondack Flames of the American Hockey League, also played a key role.
OVERCOMING THE LOSS OF GIORDANO
Calgary’s season was supposed to come to an end on Feb. 25, when captain and No 1 defenceman Mark Giordano sustained a torn biceps muscle in the final minute of a 3-1 win against the New Jersey Devils.
Defense - CGY
Goals: 11 | Assists: 37 | Pts: 48
Shots: 157 | +/-:13
Instead of folding, the resilient Flames responded by going 12-6-2 in their next 20 games before clinching a playoff berth in the next-to-last game of the season.
"I think even when you lose a guy like [Giordano], the way he presented himself all year and the way he worked and what he brought to us as an organization and as a team, I don’t think that leaves you," fellow defenceman Kris Russell said. "The kind of leadership he brings, we put it all on ourselves to be a lot like [Giordano] and pick him up a bit. I thought as a team we came together."
Russell, who leads the NHL in shot blocks with 283, stepped up. Prior to the injury, Russell cracked the 25-minute plateau 13 times in 59 games. He’s played at least 25 minutes 14 times in the 20 games post-Giordano.
Russell and partner Dennis Wideman stepped into top-pairing responsibility, while Deryk Engelland, Raphael Diaz and waiver pickup David Schlemko adapted to increased minutes.
REFUSE TO LOSE
No matter the score or situation, the Flames didn’t quit.
No team had more wins when trailing after the first period than Calgary (13) and only the Anaheim Ducks (12) and Detroit Red Wings (11) had more wins when trailing after two periods than Calgary’s 10.
The third period proved to be Calgary’s strongest.
The Flames lead all teams with 99 third-period goals. They've allowed 64, four more than the Chicago Blackhawks, the stingiest third-period team in the League.
Calgary's plus-35 third-period goal differential is tops in the NHL.
HARTLEY'S SEVEN-GAME SEGMENTS
With a team as inexperienced as Calgary, coach Bob Hartley devised a system that replicated a playoff-like schedule. He divided the 82-game schedule into 11 seven-game segments and an additional five-game segment to simulate the grind.
The Flames, whose roster has a total of 473 games of playoff experience and features 10 players who have yet to skate beyond the regular season, adapted quickly.
The Flames had a losing record in only one seven-game segment, an 0-6-1 stretch that was a part of a string of eight consecutive losses in December.
The Flames paid no attention to detractors who thought they'd be competing for a lottery pick, not a playoff spot.
"I've been in the playoffs a bunch of times and I think this one feels the best, just from where we came from and where everybody was picking us to be at the start of the year," Wideman said. "To come through and feel this group come together the way we have, this is a special one."
Author: Aaron Vickers | NHL.com Correspondent