CALGARY â€” The current edition of the Calgary Flames are a different team than the one that made the NHL playoffs two years ago.
Small, fast and larcenous, the Flames of 2015 were a lightning-in-a-bottle squad that earned a quarter of their points that season when trailing after two periods.
With scant playoff experience through that roster, getting to the post-season for the first time in six years and making it to the second round for the first time in 11, was considered a massive bucking of the odds.
The 2017 Flames are bigger, meaner and more seasoned in playoff experience because of a combination of the run to the second round two years ago and the players imported since then.
The Flames open their Western Conference quarter-final series Thursday in Anaheim against the Ducks.
Calgary was more of a gradual build this season, but had one of the best records in the NHL after Nov. 15 (40-23-3).
“We actually deserve to be here this year,” said winger Johnny Gaudreau, who made his playoff debut in 2015.
“That first year, a lot of comebacks, a lot of, I don’t want to say luck, but a lot of good opportunities to come back in games helped us get there.
“This year I think we just played all around a better game.”
Last summer’s signings of Troy Brouwer and Kris Versteeg, winners of three Stanley Cups between them in Chicago, brought a combined 136 games of post-season experience into the fold.
Dougie Hamilton, in his second season with the Flames, and Michael Stone acquired in February, give Calgary size and muscle on the back end to complement captain Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
“Obviously we’re a little heavier, but I think we’re deeper on both the front and back end,” defenceman Deryk Engelland said. “Our goaltending has been great for a long time now.”
The Flames were unsettled in goal two years ago, flip-flopping between Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller through the regular season into the playoffs.
Brian Elliott, acquired in a trade with St. Louis at least year’s draft, had a rough start to the season but is now Calgary’s undisputed No. 1.
The 32-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., went 19-9-2 with a save percentage of .919 and goals-against average of 2.29 after Jan. 1.
“He’s been really dialed in here, really this second half,” Flames general manager Brad Treliving said. “He’s a lot like our team, trying to find his footing early on. We’re going to lean on him as all teams do at this time of year in that position.”
Elliott also brings playoff reps having backstopped the Blues to the conference final last year.
Twenty-somethings Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund have gained two years worth of strength and maturity since their first tastes of the post-season.
“I think we’re better equipped,” Treliving said. “I think our team is better. We’ve got young people that have been through this experience.
“Our team is a little more mature. You don’t have as many people going through it for the first time.”
Among the least penalized teams two years ago, Calgary led all teams in minutes in 2016-17, averaging over 11 per game.
Abrasive forward Matthew Tkachuk figures largely in that number, leading all rookies with 105.
While the Flames may now have the truculence that president of hockey operations Brian Burke always said he wanted, Calgary can’t afford to be on the wrong side of the law and sitting in the penalty box in Anaheim.
“Seven-game series, it’s going to happen,” Engelland said. “Guys are going to go after guys and try to get under other guys’ skin.
“You’ve got to play whistle to whistle and the stuff after the whistle, a lot of the time it’s best to skate away. If you’re going to eat a punch, eat a punch.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press