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FLAMES EXTRA - RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM

Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk and the '89 Cup-winning Flames think the modern-day ensemble has what it takes to win it all

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Lanny McDonald has a hankering to party like it's 1989 all over again.

"They're fast. They're in your face. They have a great first line with Gaudreau and Monahan but have shown in recent weeks that others - not only the second line, but the so-called 'third' and 'fourth' lines, too - can pick in the slack when that top unit goes into the doldrums a little bit," he says admiringly.

"Seems they've turned the corner here the last while in being a little more physical.

"You look at how hard Gio is playing. Matthew Tkachuk. Bennett. Derek Ryan. Hathaway, so aggressive. The list goes on and on.

"And in the last few games James Neal's been the James Neal of old: Aggressive in the corners, knocking guys off the puck, scoring goals. That's bonus territory.

"Smith and Rittich both look like they're in a good space, a good rhythm. And you know Billy Peters isn't going to let those guys off the hook, rest on their laurels, at all.

"So many people throughout the season kept waiting, kept asking: 'OK, when's the bubble going to burst? When's the bubble going to burst?''

"It didn't.

"Those people are still waiting.

"All of a sudden they have 100-plus points. That is a helluva season.

"With Brad (Treliving) pulling the trigger on so many moves that have helped and Bill pulling the strings on getting guys to play hard each and every night …

"Wow.

"It's all there."

 

 

No one needs remind the Hanna Sniper that post-season hockey is a two-month slog through a minefield of potential mishaps, lifelong dreams more often than not blown to bits in the most unimaginable of ways.

He endured 15 seasons of disappointment, after all, in order to at long last lift that silver chalice they all covet.

In the playoffs, all that's required is the luck of a card shark, the precision of a jewel-cutter, the heart of a lion, the cunning/audacity of a pickpocket and the resolve of a zealot, to go along with quality depth down the lineup.

Simple, right?

The '89 edition possessed all those ingredients, and more.

That springtime remains the touchstone sporting moment in this town - 117 points to claim a second straight Presidents Trophy, first in goals allowed (226) and on the PK (82.8%), second among the 21 teams at the time in goals (354) and powerplay percentage (25.2). Two 50-goal scorers, 54 total wins, 32 Ws and 68 points on home ice.

The names, the moments, linger because of the enormity, the uniqueness, of the accomplishment.

So the task ahead for the new breed, those older, wiser fellas realize, is the usual daunting one.

 

 

"Remember, if Stan Smyl scores in OT in Game 7 of Round One," reminds Joe Nieuwendyk, "we probably aren't having this conversation.

"That's how fine a line you're talking about in the playoffs.

"Now the real battle begins. It's going to get harder for Johnny Hockey and the top guys. The great thing about the Flames this year is the supporting cast but that'll be challenged in playoffs.

"I like the look of the team because they have different pieces, different parts, that contribute. I know and like the coach.

"They'll going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles - inexperience at the time of year, pressure on the top line, the first playoff games for a lot of people, including the coach - and you don't know what you're dealing with until you're actually doing it.

"I love to watch them. Love to watch Johnny. They just have a good mix. They're well put together.

"I remember how much fun it was in the city back in '89 and then watching it go nuts again in 2004.

"I'm rooting for them."

Being out west piloting the fortunes of the Moose Jaw Warriors, tough guy of that era Tim Hunter, a Calgarian, is also a fan of this year's club.

"Love their game. Love their team. Love the additions,'' says the franchise's all-time PIM leader and a co-captain in '89.

"Their consistency throughout the year has been impressive. They didn't go through any real deep valleys. They've been able to maintain. Good coaching, obviously.

"The chemistry in the group is apparent. You can see just watching on TV that guys are genuinely happy for each other, they get along. Little signs like that, the mood and posture on the bench, are tells.

"Lots of good things there for people to believe they can beat anybody."

 

 

Joe Mullen doesn't see as much live game-action of his old team as he'd prefer, living out in the U.S. Eastern Time Zone. In 1989, the tungsten-tough right-winger from the hardscrabble Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of New York put in a yeoman season's work: 51 goals, 110 points, Lady Byng Trophy, Emery Edge (plus-minus) Award and then a chart-topping 16 more goals to go along with eight assists during the 22-game post-season march to glory.

"Can they win it?" repeats Mullen. "I don't see any reason why not. Looks like they're having a blast. Kinda reminds you of our days together. Having fun, enjoying each other's company.

"When that's happening, the game just seems to keep getting better and better.

"They've got all the attributes you need."

Starting, points out Cup-winning coach Terry Crisp, with the right man calling the shots.

"They've bought into Bill Peters' style, his system,'' says the long-time voice on Nashville Predators' broadcasts, long distance from Tennessee. "They've got a great combination of youth, middle-of-the-road and veterans. This club is doing it.

"They play with a passion, speed, attack. They throw a 200-foot, 60-minute game at ya. Putting on my coaching hat, I'd say they're a dream team to coach right now.

"And they've got a swagger about them - by that, I mean that every given night they believe in their hearts that they can beat anybody they play.

"As a coach, you can sense that behind the bench. You almost feel almost that same swagger your players have."

With family living here and his ties to two franchises, the gregarious Crisp has dual ties.

"We just spent a week out there," he laughs, "visiting the grandchildren. They're into it. They've all got those little red jerseys on.

"Down here they put on the Predators' jersey, otherwise they don't get in the house."

 

 

One area of possible concern with the current Flames' group, some point out, is that relative dearth of playoff experience. Between them, James Neal (100) and Michael Frolik (42) have seven more post-season appearances than everyone else on the roster, combined.

"It can make a difference," Mullen agrees. "But that depends on the make-up of the different guys. Look at Theo. That year we won, he was just a rookie but it didn't bother him one bit.

"He didn't care that he was in the playoffs, that the stage was bigger. He just went out and played his heart out.

"If the young guys can get used to the tighter type of hockey right away, they've got a great chance of winning."

Left-winger Colin Patterson, too, says that post season hardening helps.

"It's a different game today, a different make-up,'' he reckons. "But a big difference between our team and this one is playoff experience. The majority of our team had been to the finals together in '86 so we knew what it took to get there.

"Doesn't mean they can't do it.

"What does remind me of '89 is that these guys keep working for each other, the way we did. If they get the right guys clicking at the right time, like anyone, and get hot goaltending, who knows?

"You work all year to get home ice advantage and can lose it in one game. That can't stop you. You've got to keep pushing and plugging.

"I don't know what kind of expectations the fans have or don't have, I just personally want them to do well."

 

 

Among other interested onlookers, count difference-maker Doug Gilmour, the indisputable pulse of that '89 edition.

As president of hockey ops for the OHL's Frontenacs, he has, of course, a tether to the current Flames in the person of Sam Bennett, a Kingston grad.

"I also played with Giordano at the Spengler Cup way back when (2007)," reminds Gilmour, who scored two goals in the decisive Game 6 at the Montreal Forum on May 25th 30 years ago. "I remember trying to explain to teams in the NHL then: 'Why would you not go after this guy?' He's had a great season, and a great career, in Calgary.

"The highlights are pretty much what we get of their games here. But no doubt they are fun to watch. And they've obviously built a strong team. What, 107 points?

"And while obviously playoffs are a different animal, they've got home ice. They earned it. Take it and run with it. Trust in what got you to this point.

"That's the only organization I won a Stanley Cup with. I'll be cheering for them."

 

 

Closer to home, local boy Mike Vernon also fancies the cut of the jib of this 2018-2019 group.

"I like the team. I like both goaltenders. Smitty's playing really well right now and I like Rittich's competitiveness.

"And you need both.

"Look at last year. Washington starts its back-up goalie for the first two games, then they put their veteran (Braden Holtby) in and he runs the table.

"From what I see and I hear, the depth the organization has put together, especially on defence, is impressive. When you have players who can step in if guys aren't feeling well or are injured - and no one on the outside has any idea what's going on in that department at this time of year - it's huge.

"The year we won, Gary Suter - an all-star defenceman, right? - had his jaw broken in the first round. Well, Rob Ramage steps in to that spot and never misses a beat. Played powerplay, penalty-kill and a regular shift. He was absolutely phenomenal, didn't get the amount of attention he deserved for his contribution.

"You need that kind of quality depth. This group looks as if it has it."

 

 

For handy-dandy D-man Ric Nattress pushing through the jitters of an opening round is tricky business.

"I like 'em," he says of the Flames. "I really do. A month ago, I thought maybe San Jose, regardless of the standings, was the best team in the West. But they've petered out a bit while Calgary's more then held their own.

"With the troubles Winnipeg's had off and on, as well as Nashville, it's a good year to be good.

"Thing is, I'm always cautionary. That first round is usually tricky. Look at how good we were and had to struggle to get out of the first round, pretty much had to kick one in to get the chance to kick some ass.

"That's my only concern. And not just with them. Emotions play such a big part in it and expectations can work against you, can muffle guys, particularly if you're favoured in a series and it doesn't start well for you."

Vernon, for one, will argue that in the big picture a right-out-of-the-gate litmus test isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

"Teams that are pushed to the limit the first round usually go deep into the playoffs," he points out. "That puts you on your guard. Washington had the scare of their lives against Columbus last year, remember. Go down the list. We got a real scare from Vancouver.

"Those teams that feel that fear early and find a way to overcome it seem gain a degree of confidence in themselves and inside that dressing room moving on. You think: 'OK, this is only the first round and look how hard it was. But we survived.'

"After going through that, you kind of calm down and figure you can survive anything."

 

Video: CGY@SJS: Flames celebrate win, clinch top West seed

 

As Game One of Round One nears, parallels are, naturally, being drawn between then and now, between '89 and today, almost as if anticipating an up-to-date CGI remake of some long-ago blockbuster movie.

Sean Monahan inherits the Nieuwendyk role. Tkachuk is Fleury standing on an apple crate. Bennett fills in for Gary Roberts. Johnny Gaudreau gets his choice of the meaty Hakan Loob or Mullen parts. At 35, Giordano supplies the emotional rallying point that McDonald did in the spring of '89, and also doubles for Al MacInnis. Smith and/or Rittich lose six inches of height and morphs into a current-day Vernon.

Peters, instead of Crisp, sits in the director's chair; Treliving, not Cliff Fletcher, frets up in the press box on the fate of his creation.

So, does the current edition, in any meaningful way shape or form, remind the old No. 9 of his 30-year anniversary team of destiny?

"Oh, I think so," is Lanny McDonald's instantaneous reply. "And in one respect, particularly:

"How do you want to play? Aggressive? Yup. We can do that. Run-and-gun? Fine. We can do that, too. A tight, shut-down game? Uh huh.

"That was us back then. It didn't matter what style the other team threw at us, we felt comfortable, confident, being in that type of game.

"And I see that same quality in this group.

"But, bottom line is:

"They're not us. They're them.

"And they're good."

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