Calgary Flames vow to keep foot on the gas heading into playoffs

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CALGARY — The Calgary Flames were in a similar position not that long ago. Heading into the NHL playoffs armed with a high seed after a stellar regular season, the post-season flop of 2019 was a lesson learned for 2022.

"Looking back at the 18-19 year, we had guys sitting, we had guys resting for playoffs," Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau recalled. "We were first in the Western Conference and we just kind of took our foot off the gas. We can't do that this year.

"A lot of guys on our team this year were part of that team and we kind of learned from that."

The Flames (50-21-11) open a best-of-seven first-round series against the Dallas Stars (46-30-6) on Tuesday at the Saddledome.

Game 2 is there Thursday with the series switching to American Airlines Centre for Saturday's Game 3 and Game 4 on May 9.

Dallas beat Calgary in six games in the first round of Edmonton's 2020 playoff bubble in the last post-season meeting between the two clubs. The Stars eventually fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six game in the Stanley Cup final.

Dallas earned the Western Conference's first wild-card berth vaulting over the Nashville Predators with a 4-2 win over Anaheim to cap their regular season.

A playoff berth locked in with two weeks left in the regular season and first in the Pacific Division secured with four games to go, Calgary accrued more points this season (111) than it did in 2019 (107) when it topped the conference.

Led by one-man-wrecking-crew Nathan MacKinnon, an Avs team on the gallop just to get into the playoffs ousted the Flames in five games in the first round three years ago.

The 2022 Flames feature almost a dozen players who can recall that sting. That includes current 40-goal scorers Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm.

That memory makes them better equipped this time around to carry their regular-season form into the playoffs, according to their head coach.

"Probably one of the big reasons would be is they got their asses kicked and they're proud guys and good players," Flames head coach Darryl Sutter said.

"You can explain to players all you want what it's like, but they've got to go through it. And then you find out a lot more about the player."

Key differences in Calgary's 2022 playoff edition is a coach who has won a pair of Stanley Cups since he departed the Flames in 2010, recent additions of players who know what it is to go deep into the playoffs and elite goaltender Jacob Markstrom being capable of a long post-season haul.

Blake Coleman joined the Flames last summer after winning back-to-back Cups with Tampa Bay. Trevor Lewis, also signed last summer, won a pair of Cups (2012, 2014) with Sutter when both were with the Los Angeles Kings.

Tyler Toffoli, also a member of the victorious 2014 Kings, arrived via a February trade with Montreal after reaching the Cup final with the Canadiens last year.

"I think the key to it all is successful experience. Not just experience," Sutter said. "The guys with the freshest memories are Blake Coleman and Tyler Toffoli. Really important players.

"Lewy that's won back-to-back within the last 10 years, that's significant. Those three guys pull a lot of weight."

But Dallas boasts more long-haul playoff experience with 14 in the current lineup who were Cup finalists less than two years ago.

"They've got of guys who have played a lot of playoff games," Lewis said. "They know what they're doing."

With almost 60 years of NHL coaching experience between them as either a head coach or assistant, there's little Dallas's Rick Bowness and Sutter haven't seen in the game.

Sutter coached Calgary to its longest-post season run since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 when the Flames lost the 2004 Cup final to the Lightning in Game 7.

Rehired in March, 2021, Sutter got the Flames playing a balance of high-octane offence and defensively responsible hockey in his first full season back behind the bench.

Markstrom, 32, was the team's stalwart backbone this season. Of all playoff-bound goalies, Markstrom and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevsky tied for second in games played (63) behind Nashville's Juuse Saros (67).

Sutter, who rested Markstrom four of Calgary's final six regular-season games, pointed out the Flames' goalie had breaks this season, including the 17 days in December the club was off the ice because of COVID-19.

"The big thing is you want him sharp. The worse thing you can do is give goalies too much time off," the coach said. "The way you win a round is two things: you have to be healthy and you have to have a goalie."

Injuries to Ben Bishop, Braeden Holtby and Anton Khudobin turned that position into a carousel in Dallas. Jake Oettinger, 23, took the majority of starts going 30-15--1.

The Stars' first-round pick in 2017 lacks playoff experience, however, with a total of 36 minutes played and eight shots faced in 2020.

The Flames will be a handful for Dallas and not only because of the top line of Gaudreau, Lindholm and Tkachuk, whose plus-minus is a combined plus-60.

Calgary produced more secondary scoring than Dallas this season. Led by 35-goal player Andrew Mangiapane and, lately, Dillon Dube with seven goals in his last nine games, makes stopping Calgary's offence a game of Whac-a-mole.

"You don't win a playoff series without depth scoring," Coleman said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2022.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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