Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Flames Players Draw Upon Past Big Game Experience in Huge Showdown with LA

There's no mistaking the magnitude of the game. Win and you're in. 

The upstart Calgary Flames, six months into an unsustainable fast start, have the defending Stanley Cup champions on the brink and can not only end the Los Angeles Kings post-season aspirations with a victory Thursday night, but would also snap their own five-year playoff hiatus.

Any way you look at it, it's a far cry from what nearly everyone thought would happen this season. If six months ago, you posed the question of what this rebuilding Calgary hockey club might be clinching in game 81, the overwhelming response would have been a top four pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, or maybe even top three. 

Instead, at 44-29-7, a stunning fifteen games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008-09 season, Calgary has Los Angeles on the verge of being the first club since the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006-07 to miss the playoffs one season after winning the Stanley Cup.

"It's an exciting time, obviously. We worked for this all year and it's right there. It's in our own hands and we're going to try and do whatever we can to find a way to be in that spot that we want to be in," said Sean Monahan. "It's a big game tomorrow, both teams are going to be battling hard so it's going to be a tough 60 to play and we're looking forward to it."

One shouldn't be surprised if Monahan is a central figure again on Thursday. After all, he's made a habit of it so far in his young career. With his eighth game-winning goal against Arizona, Monahan became just the fifth player in NHL history to record eight or more game-winning goals in a season before the age of 21. The others: Wayne Gretzky (1981-82), Pierre Turgeon (1989-90), Eric Lindros (1993-94) and Sergei Samsonov (1998-99).

"This kid is clutch, it's just unbelievable. The poise that he's showing. There's never a panic move in his game," said Flames coach Bob Hartley. "I don't know if he has nerves of steel or he has no nerves. His hockey IQ, his vision of the game is second to none."

What remains to be seen is will the overall lack of big-game experience in the NHL hurt the Flames or help a club, which all season has continued to defy what's supposed to happen as if they simply don't know any better.

Big Game Experience, Just Not in the NHL

Johnny Gaudreau has played in big games before. The NCAA Frozen Four is a big deal south of the border and he made the trip there with Boston College a few times, winning the National Championship in his freshman season.

"You're one-and-done in NCAA tournaments, so you have to win those games or you're going to be out of the playoffs and your season is done," said Gaudreau, "That's as close as I've been to something like this."

The importance of those tournament games are further heightened when you're playing in a college hockey hotbed like Massachusetts.

"There are a lot of big hockey cities in the U.S. that love being part of the Frozen Four," said Gaudreau. "There are red carpets and fans and bands coming out to cheer us on and stuff. It's a pretty special time, just like I imagine the (NHL) playoffs are like."

Asked to name some of the biggest games in his career up until now, Mikael Backlund referenced his long playoff run with the Kelowna Rockets in 2009.

"We won two game 6's at home in Kelowna, in both the conference final and the final, the arena was very loud and those were great moments in my junior career," Backlund said. 

In the conference final, Backlund scored three times including the overtime-winner in a 5-4 win over Lance Bouma and the Vancouver Giants.

In the league final against Martin Jones and the Calgary Hitmen, Backlund had two assists. This included combining with Jamie Benn to set up Tyson Barrie's overtime winner in a 3-2 win that sent the Rockets to the Memorial Cup.

"Those two game 6's, I played my best games for the whole playoffs in those two games so that's what I'll bring tomorrow," said Backlund, sounding confident.

Backlund also mentioned the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championships in Ottawa when he helped lead Sweden to the gold medal game before losing 5-1 to Canada.

Unfortunately, we lost that game but that was a big game too," Backlund said. "I've never been in an 
arena that loud."

Big Game Experience, Just a Long Time Ago

For Kris Russell, he reflects on a must-win game he had with Columbus in 2009 in his sophomore season. It was game 80 and the Blue Jackets needed one point going into its game in the noisy United Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Rick Nash scored late to tie it up to get us a point to put us into the playoffs," recalled Russell.

Russell says there are some similarities between that Blue Jackets club and this year's Flames.

"It has the same kind of feel, it was a team that felt like a younger team that was on the rise."

Russell says he's looking forward to the showdown with the Kings, who Calgary has beaten three out of four times this season.

"You draw from all the experiences you've had but at the same time, it's going to be a different game but it's going to be exciting and it should be a lot of fun."

Jonas Hiller has been to the post-season the last two years and has 26 games of playoff experience so while it's not technically a playoff game, he hopes that experience can help benefit the team.

"Definitely helps to have experience in the dressing room," Hiller said. "If it comes down to those games, to have that extra calmness, to know that you've been through all those things before."

Hoping Preparation Makes up for Lack of Experience

There's no denying it.

When it comes to big, pressure-filled games, the Kings and coach Darryl Sutter hold the edge in that department and significantly. 

After all, we're talking about a team that has played 64 playoff games over the last three seasons and won two Stanley Cups.

"You can't go to the pharmacy to buy a pack of experience," quipped Hartley. "You have to be in those games in order to acquire that experience. That's what we've tried to grow in this organization for the last three years. We've had some great performances from veterans, from rookies. There is a great progression in performances."

Hartley hopes preparation will make up for some of the gap in experience.

"We can't deny what the LA Kings have done, but all season, we've spent 10, 20 percent of our preparation on other teams, instead we've put the focus on ourselves," Hartley said. "Making sure we put them in a situation where they feel good, that they know that they can compete and that they can win hockey games.

"We have the utmost respect for the LA Kings but tomorrow night when the puck will drop here at the Scotiabank Saddledome, we know the meaning of this game," said Hartley.

It will, indeed, be the single biggest hockey game Calgary has seen in six years. Coming on Fan Appreciation night, it's a fitting conclusion to the 41-game home portion of the regular season schedule, which has also been one of the most entertaining in years, if not ever.


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