Johnny Gaudreau’s Game 7 overtime winner on Sunday night didn’t just fulfill his boyhood dreams. It also helped the Calgary Flames shake their reputation of playoff underachievers – for now – with the franchise winning its first best-of-seven series since 2015, and just the fourth overall since it won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
However, equally as important for people across the length and breadth of the province – as well as further afield – it helped set the stage for the first Battle of Alberta since Theo Fleury was sliding across the ice on his knees after scoring a memorable overtime winner of his own in 1991.
Though the Flames ultimately lost that series, and are 1-5 all-time against the Edmonton Oilers, the potential to assert provincial dominance carries an almost universal appeal, even to those who weren’t born the last time the two adversaries locked horns in the postseason.
“I mean, I’ve been here for nine years and never had even a sniff of a chance to play them in playoffs,” said Gaudreau, who was born in 1993. “So that’s pretty special. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be good for the province. It’s going to be fun for them, for us. It’s going to be a pretty cool series.”
Both the Oilers and Flames had to endure tense, hard-fought, seven-game series in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. Edmonton won the final two games to edge the Los Angeles Kings on home ice on Saturday, while the Flames were able to eliminate the Dallas Stars at the second time of asking at the Saddledome on Sunday.
The victory, which only came after launching 67 shots at Dallas goaltender Jake Oettinger, was another important marker on a the oft-bumpy road to respectability that many of the Flames players are on, according to their head coach.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough. You want to make the playoffs, you want to win four games, if you want to play seven games, that’s the way it works,” said Darryl Sutter, who improved to an NHL-best 8-3 as a head coach in Game 7s. “It’s a process, you’ve got to learn it and figure it out.”
The ability to overcome adversity will stand Sutter’s Flames in good stead for the battles to come in the series with the Oilers, which begins Wednesday. While the hard-fought victory over the Stars was likely still fresh in his mind, as a native of Viking, Alta., Sutter was asked for his thoughts about the series between the two provincial rivals.
In typical Sutter fashion, the head coach gave one of his usual deadpan responses.
“Well, I think we’re pretty lucky that two Canadian teams are still playing,” he said.
For two teams that were in the conversation every year for the Stanley Cup during much of the eighties, Calgary and Edmonton have endured less fruitful times of late. Much like Calgary, Edmonton also struggled on the rare occasions it made the playoffs, with the team experiencing just one series win in 16 years before breaking through with Saturday’s Game 7 win.
Oilers captain Connor McDavid is playing like a man on a mission, leading all playoff scorers with 14 points through seven games, and coming off his fourth regular-season scoring title with a career-best 123 points.
With Calgary following up a division title with a breakthrough playoff series win, the development of the core that Sutter so often talks about just got a dose of accelerant.
“Yeah, it was just such a hard series,” Matthew Tkachuk said Sunday night. “That was a hard series to win. Feels very good. But we don’t want to stop there.”
As with Gaudreau, Tkachuk experienced his first Game 7 on Sunday. Like his teammate, he also scored a big goal – one-timing a pass from Gaudreau over the shoulder of Oettinger – for the tying goal.
Under the tough-love style of coaching that Sutter espouses, the Flames have developed an edge about them, one that Tkachuk feels will gird the team for the tougher tests still to come on the road to the Stanley Cup.
“I think that our team, the way we’re conditioned and work and wear teams down, we’re built for a Game 7-type of game and it showed [as] it took us till minute almost 80 [to score the winner] and it’s an important win for us,” Tkachuk said.
As for the Battle of Alberta, the Flames winger wasn’t about to get carried away, choosing instead to celebrate the first playoff series win of his career.
“Yeah, that’ll be exciting,” he said. “It’s great for all of Alberta. Honestly, really haven’t allowed myself to think too much about it.”