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Flames never let adversity slow path to playoffs

by Aaron Vickers /

It took seven months and 83 games, but the Calgary Flames have gone from expected to compete for Connor McDavid to stealing home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Expected to be among the candidates for the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the Flames instead earned a berth in the playoffs for the first time in six years. And in winning 2-1 against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Wednesday, have stolen home-ice advantage in the Western Conference First Round series.

Game 2 is in Vancouver on Friday (10 p.m. ET; CBC, CNBC, TVA Sports).

Assistant general manager Craig Conroy said Calgary's resurgence comes as a result of forging a new identity.

"I think it's just an overall thing. It's the philosophy, what we wanted to do," said Conroy, who was one of Calgary's top centers the last time the Flames were in the playoffs, when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the first round in 2009.

"We said, 'Hey, we might not want to make the playoffs but we're going to try and win every game.' Our goal is to make the playoffs. We're not going to give anyone an excuse.

"It started when [president of hockey operations] Brian Burke was here. No excuses. If we give excuses now it's hard to take those excuses away. [Coach Bob Hartley's] message at the beginning of the year: 'We are going to make the playoffs.' It starts with the coaching staff. The players bought in right away. We want to build an identity."

Hartley credited the creation of that identity coming from the core group, which includes captain Mark Giordano and alternate captains Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler.

"Leadership, our leaders in the room," Hartley said. "They created a standard that mediocre is not OK. If you're not part of our guys and don't believe in the way that we're working, you'll have a hard time being part of the pack. We've created this."

The Flames finished 27th in the NHL last season, so few pegged them as a playoff team this season.

They started 17-9-2 but few believed Calgary's play was sustainable and would fall off in time. When an eight-game losing streak (0-7-1) hit in December, the Flames were expected to tumble out of the playoff picture. But they rebounded with four straight wins to stay in the race.

When Giordano was lost to a season-ending injury Feb. 25, then the Flames were supposed to stumble; instead they finished the season 12-6-3 without their captain and top defenseman.

"You go out there on our rink and you see that 'Never Quit' slogan and that's been our team," said forward Brandon Bollig, who with Hudler are the two Flames skaters to have won the Stanley Cup in their career.

"How many third-period comebacks have we had? For a while there I'm not sure we ended up leading … the League in third-period goals (actually tied for first with 99). That’s a mindset we had here, and like I said, we never gave up until the final buzzer.

"There were so many comebacks that we had and we wouldn't be standing here talking if we didn't have that attitude and we gave up when we were down a couple goals. It's gigantic in the postseason, as I've found out, and I think that will be another big part of our success."

The Flames' 13 wins when trailing after one period also were most in the League, and their 10 wins when trailing after two periods was third.

Fittingly, the Flames defeated the Canucks in Game 1 with a third-period comeback. The Flames trailed 1-0 but scored twice in the third, capped by the game-winner by Kris Russell with 29.6 seconds remaining, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

The dramatics became, and continue to encompass, Calgary's identity.

"Many times this group has shown us a willingness to compete and a willingness to never say die," Hartley said. "We have the boxer's attitude. I talk about the boxer's attitude a lot with our players. You go down, you get back up and you keep going.

"We've done this and it takes a will to do this. We have that will, there's no doubt in my mind. I love my team, I love my players, and I'm having lots of fun and I want to enjoy this ride."

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