Take advantage of the opportunity. That was the message from veterans Mark Giordano and Mike Smith as the Calgary Flames began preparations on Monday to meet the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.
They would know how precious making the playoffs is, too.
For Smith, 37, he’s looking to make his first post-season appearance since 2012 when he backstopped the Phoenix Coyotes to the Western Conference final. For Giordano, 35, two ill-timed injuries have limited him to just eight playoff games over his long career.
“It’s important to grasp what we have and take this opportunity that doesn’t come around very often,” said Smith.
“It’s a great honour and opportunity to make a name for yourself on the biggest stage in the world. We’ve got some younger guys that want this, but older guys, too, who haven’t played much playoff hockey and it’s a big moment for them, too.”
Calgary (50-25-7) just completed its best regular season since 1988-89 when it won the Presidents’ Trophy and went on to win its only Stanley Cup. The Flames finished second overall and No. 1 in the West for the first time in 29 years. In doing so, they’re just the 10th team in NHL history to go from missing the playoffs to tops in the conference the next season.
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Led by Johnny Gaudreau, 25, Sean Monahan, 24, Elias Lindholm, 24, Noah Hanifin, 22, and Matthew Tkachuk, 21 — all of them fixtures in the team’s top-six forwards or top-four defencemen — exactly half of the 18 skaters projected to be in Bill Peters’ lineup on Thursday night are age 25 or younger.
“We’ve got veteran guys and we’ve got young guys who are excited to make their mark on the post-season,” says Monahan. “This is why we play the game, you want to get there and you want to make an impact.”
Given the volume of youth, one might assume Calgary is a team on the rise, whose window to win is just opening up. But in a 31-team league, just making the post-season is hard enough, as the Flames can attest, having missed out in seven of the last nine seasons.
“A lot of things have to go right to finish first in the conference. We’ve had a good year and a consistent year and we’re not just looking at this as an opportunity to get experience, we think we have a great team that can go far,” said Giordano.
It’s been a Norris Trophy-calibre season for Giordano, the team captain and backbone, who finished with a career-high 74 points (17 goals, 57 assists) in 78 games.
“You never know how many cracks you’re going to get at this,” says Tkachuk, whose only post-season taste so far was a four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, “Guys who have been in the NHL a long time and are preaching to you that we have to take advantage of this opportunity.”
The only Stanley Cup ring belongs to Michael Frolik, who won it with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. James Neal is the most experienced playoff performer by far with 100 post-season games on his resume. Frolik at 42 is the only other player with more than 20.
Calgary is preparing to open up the post-season on home ice for the first time since 2006. The buzz around the city continues to grow and on Thursday the C of Red will be out in full force as red jersey-clad fans pack what’s bound to be a raucous Scotiabank Saddledome.
“The important thing is to not let the moment overwhelm you,” said Smith. “It’s the same size rink, the same lines are painted on the ice. Just the intensity level, the emotion of the game, obviously the crowd, everything, it’s that much more amplified. That’s the only difference.”
The Flames swept the season series with Colorado winning 6-5 and 5-3 at home in regulation and prevailing 3-2 in overtime in Denver.
Calgary is expected to be at full strength for the series opener. Monahan and Sam Bennett both missed time down the stretch but they were full participants in practice on Monday.
As for starting goaltender, Peters hasn’t declared whether it will be Smith or David Rittich, who split time during the regular season. But the expectation is it will be Smith, who got the assignment in the biggest game of the season on March 31 when Calgary beat the Sharks in San Jose to clinch first in the Pacific Division.