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Flames qualify for playoffs, eliminate Kings

by Aaron Vickers

CALGARY -- The Calgary Flames will compete for the Stanley Cup. The defending Stanley Cup champions won't.

The Flames qualified for the playoffs and in the process, ensured there would be no repeat champion, eliminating the Los Angeles Kings from postseason contention with a 3-1 win at Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday.

The victory ensures Calgary (45-29-7), which finished 26th overall a year ago, a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009. The Flames are third in the Pacific Division and will face the second-place Vancouver Canucks, who lead them by two points. Each team has one game remaining.

"We have a group of guys that not many people believed in but internally we did," Flames defenseman Kris Russell said. "To do it with the group we did it was pretty special. At the same time I think there's a feeling here that we're not done yet. It's one thing to get in the playoffs. Now it's to compete, and that's what we're aiming to do. We're going to have a lot of fun tonight, enjoying this and settling down but the real work starts.

"Our goal wasn't just to get into the playoffs. Now our task is to win. It starts with Game 1 in the playoffs. We have one more game left. We have to finish strong and get some momentum heading into the playoffs. We're a team that believes in here and we want to go a long way."

The Kings (39-26-15), who won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They are the first defending champion to miss the playoffs in the following season since the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006-07.

"It's hard to put stuff into words right now," Kings center Anze Kopitar said. "We're certainly not satisfied and are very disappointed. It is what it is; we just didn't play good enough hockey this year. Too much inconsistency, four and five-game losing streaks, and you can't do that. It's too tough coming down the stretch, this time of year, to be playing catch-up. There are not a lot of teams that do it and it didn't work for us."

Calgary came out firing in the first period, directing three pucks on Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick in the opening 48 seconds. The Flames kept pushing until Johnny Gaudreau's goal 7:45 into the game put them ahead to stay.

After Jiri Hudler stepped into a slap shot that skipped off the end glass and back into the slot, several swipes at the bouncing puck were unsuccessful until Gaudreau connected on a line drive that landed on Quick's arm. As the goaltender fell backwards, the puck crossed the goal line to give Calgary a 1-0 lead.

The goal was confirmed after video review.

"It hit off the glass and bounced right out to me in front," Gaudreau said. "I just tried to get a quick shot on net. [Hudler] saw it go in the net right away. I saw him cheer so I started cheering too. At first I thought it was [a goal] but then they took a while to call it a goal so I kind of got a little nervous but ultimately it went in so I was pretty happy about it."

The Flames scored 2:13 later for a 2-0 lead. Mason Raymond picked his way over the Los Angeles blue line and dropped a pass to Hudler, who took one stride before stepping into a shot that went past Quick's blocker and caught the post before wrapping into the back of the net.

It was Hudler's career-high 30th goal and turned out to be the game-winner.

"This was special," Hudler said. "Obviously, we want to be in [the playoffs] every time, but after six or seven years we weren't in, it's special.

"We're looking forward to it and we've got to get ready. We don't just want to be in the playoffs, we want to make things happen."

The Kings pushed back in the second period, outshooting Calgary 12-4 and keeping the puck in the Flames' zone for long stretches. But they were unable to beat goaltender Jonas Hiller until five minutes into the third period, when Jordan Nolan fired a shot past Hiller's blocker after corralling the rebound of Alec Martinez's point shot to pull Los Angeles within 2-1 with 15 minutes remaining.

The Kings pressed unsuccessfully for the tying goal until Hudler hit the empty net with 50 seconds remaining to put Calgary in the playoffs and end the Kings' playoff aspirations.

"We still defended it," Quick said. "We defended it for 81 games.

"We had the expectation of winning the Cup again. That was our expectation this morning and all game long. Until they scored the empty-netter, that was our expectation - we're going to get in and we're going to win again. I guess it's just disappointment.

"At the end of the day, we had 82 games to make the playoffs and we weren't able to do it."

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