Through three games of the Stanley Cup qualifying round, the Calgary Flames have proved they’re good at a lot of things.
Making friends isn’t one of them- especially if your name is Matthew Tkachuk.
Turns out, Flames alumni are loving it.
“There aren’t many smarter hockey players out there than him and it’s a credit to the way he plays,” Stanley Cup champ and current Calgary Hitmen assistant coach Joel Otto said. “He’s suited for playoff hockey and it seems right now that he’s kind of leading the charge, in my opinion.”
“Good on him for answering the bell with Wheeler right away,” Flames legend Lanny McDonald added. “That sent a message to the whole team. That’s the change from a year ago that Otts (Otto) is talking about versus where they are now.”
A rivalry renewed
The heated series has proved these teams simply don’t like each other.
It’s a theme that goes back more than 35 years.
“Everyone always talks about the battle of Alberta,” Lanny said. “But playing the Jets, they were tough.”
The last time Calgary and Winnipeg faced each other in a five-game postseason series, it was 1986, and the Flames would sweep the Jets en route to the Stanley Cup final.
Read more: Flames, Jets the all-Canadian clash
Those Smythe division match ups delivered high scores, big checks, and, more often than not, throwing fists.
“The problem is I was always on the same line with Jim Peplinski who kept starting everything,” Otto joked. “We swept them which was big back then because we were playing back to back quite a bit… We were able to be a little bit rested for Edmonton series next round and thankfully, we were able to take that one in seven and that was a pretty big moment in our playing careers.”
The Jets would best the Flames in the division semifinals in 1985 and 1987, though Calgary would take hockey’s top prize in 1989.
“Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg were tough games,” Stanley Cup champ Jamie Macoun recalled. “You knew that everybody had to be pulling on that rope in the same direction or you weren’t going to win.”
A New Flames Identity
In the 2018-2019 season, a Norris-trophy winning season for captain Mark Giordano and career-best years for several of his teammates propelled Calgary to the top of the Western Conference, only to sputter out in five games in playoffs at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche.
“There’s usually two or three, if not more than that alumni up there watching (in the Saddledome),” Macoun said. “The number one thing that we talk about is we’d pick out a player – I’m not gonna mention any names – and say, this guy’s got almost everything going for him. But he just doesn’t seem to want it. He just doesn’t seem to have the edge that you need to be successful in the playoffs.
Now we’ve got a few guys out there that are running around and obviously, Tkachuk has learned from his dad that you know, you’ve got to play a little bit of an edge to keep everybody guessing. If he keeps leading like that and the other guys keep following suddenly Calgary becomes one of those teams that you don’t want to play against.”
While there’s still a lot of hockey to be played in this post-season qualifier, these alumni believe this edition of the Flames is taking the ice grittier, hungrier, and with a stronger sense of identity than last season.
“You can learn more in two weeks of playoffs about a player and about a team than you can in a whole season,” Macoun added.
“For a few years there, I think Calgary was kind of in the middle. They were pretty good at everything, but they weren’t great at anything. I think every team’s gonna be great at something and right now, if they keep playing the way they’re playing, we can say at least one thing: they’re great at getting under the skin of some of the other teams.”
In particular, they’ve been impressed by Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and veteran Milan Lucic.
“The Lucic deal – regardless of how many goals he scores – he’s a bonus,” Lanny said. “Colin (Patterson) and I were on the road trip with the dads and it’s amazing how these guys appreciate him being in the lineup and being beside them on the bench. Now teams can’t take liberties. You used to hear comments when other opposition would go by the bench now with Milan there they don’t say those comments because he’s gonna be out there for the next shift.”
They’ll be watching closely as the Flames aim to win a post-season series for the first time since 2015.
The series winner will meet the Western Conference’s top seed that will emerge from a round-robin of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights.