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Hockey After a season to remember, Calgary Flames grapple with playoff debacle

Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) hangs his head near the end of the third period during NHL playoff action against the Colorado Avalanche in Calgary, Alta., Friday, April 19.

Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

There were about five minutes left in Friday night’s game when Mark Giordano realized the Calgary Flames season was over. They were on the wrong end of a lopsided score and the usually boisterous crowd at the Scotiabank Saddledome had fallen silent. Fans were stunned, but no more than the players.

A season to remember morphed into a playoff debacle to forget. Fifty wins in 82 games over seven months earned Calgary nothing but an invitation to the Stanley Cup meat grinder. Four losses in eight days to the Colorado Avalanche earned them a sharp jab to the gut and kick in the pants out the exit door.

“At 5-1 in the third, you realize you are probably not coming back,” Giordano said in the team’s hushed dressing room. The Flames’ 35-year-old captain had the look of a man both beaten and confused. Hollow. “At that point, a lot of thoughts go through your mind.

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“We weren’t expecting it after the season we had. Nobody saw this coming. It is tough to swallow. It is going to be a long summer.”

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The season ended with a whimper for Calgary rather than a parade on the Stampede Grounds. The Flames were steamrolled by their adversary from the Lower 48. Only one Canadian team is left to pursue hockey distinction. It is Canada’s most beloved sport. Everyone presumed Calgary and Winnipeg would make extended playoff runs.

The Maple Leafs are the only ones left standing. Western Canadians will have to abandon their common abhorrence for them and jump on the bandwagon. It is a leap too painful for some.

Flames fans hugged in the aftermath of their team’s unceremonious end. Eyes were watery. Tears rolled down cheeks.

When a dream dies, it is never easy.

This was the second-best season in franchise history and conjured up memories of 1989. That is the year Calgary won its lone Stanley Cup. It is a long time, but not a half-century. No wonder Toronto’s fans are going loco.

The things the Flames did so remarkably well during the regular season they were unable to do against the Avalanche. They couldn’t score. They defended badly. They lost their poise.

“It is tough to explain,” Giordano said. “We haven’t had this feeling all year.”

The Flames were the second-best team in the NHL from October until the end of March. The only one better was the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were clobbered in four games by Columbus.

It was such a dominating performance that the Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella didn’t even complain when a fan poured beer on him from behind the bench.

How does a team that has never won a playoff series dispatch such a talented team as the one in Tampa? How does another that last won a round in post-season 11 years ago deliver such a butt-kicking to Calgary?

There is a common theme between those opponents. The Blue Jackets and Avalanche were the last two teams to get into the playoffs. Usually such teams are feasted upon in the first round by the highest seeds.

In both cases, though, they had no choice but to exert playofflike intensity for three weeks just to make it. Tampa Bay and Calgary breezed along and had no such worries. Perhaps each lost its edge while playing out strings of meaningless games at the end of the regular season.

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“After taking a little time to reflect, I am sure I will reach out to Jon Cooper and we will discuss that,” Bill Peters, the Flames coach, said in reference to the Lightning’s bench boss. “There may be something to it.

“For our team it was like the harder we dug, the deeper the hole. It got away from us.”

There are other uncomfortable things Calgary needs to address.

Johnny Gaudreau had 99 points during the regular season but only one in five playoff games. Colorado’s defence too easily turned him into a nonfactor. He fumbled pucks too often in traffic and wasted energy in extended fruitless skates.

This is not to suggest that he is not a good player, but perhaps one who needs more help. Once he was taken out of the picture, the Flames offence dried up.

“We had a great regular season and high expectations, but we played flat-footed in a couple of games and now it’s over,” Gaudreau said. “Hopefully, we will learn from this.”

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These are hard lessons, all, especially after feeling they were on the cusp of something so special.

As their point-makers struggled, the Flames were snowed under by the Avalanche’s spectacular top line. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog combined for nine goals and 21 points.

“We didn’t have an answer to them,” Peters said.

MacKinnon has always been touted as one of the game’s top players but has fallen short of superstar status until now. He blew around defencemen like a cyclone and bulled his way along the boards.

It was a revelation.

“Anyone who doesn’t think he is one of the best, if not the best, might want to take a look at this series,” Giordano said. “He is playing at an entirely different level than he ever has. He gets my vote for the best player left in the playoffs and one of the best, period.

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“He completely took over.”

Calgary’s best performance by far was turned in by Mike Smith. As the team collapsed around him, the veteran goalie only played better.

“This is the ultimate disappointment,” Smith, 37, said. “To be able to get to this point is why you play hockey and why you train so hard in the summer. As you get older, these opportunities diminish.”

It was a good season with a terrible ending.

“It felt like we had climbed so many mountains over the course of the year,” Smith said. ”To realize you have to play 82 more games again to get back to this level, it puts everything into perspective quickly.

“It’s tough.”

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