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Wednesday was supposed to mark the start of something special.
The start of the latest instalment of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The start, the Calgary Flames were hoping, of an extended run.
The start of a streak, perhaps.
It’s been more than a decade now since the Flames qualified for the playoffs in consecutive springs.
When the current campaign was paused due to the global health crisis, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Matthew Tkachuk & Co. were questing to change that. With a dozen dates remaining on their regular-season slate, the Flames were sitting third in the Pacific Division standings, just four points out of second place but also two from falling to the wrong side of the wildcard cut-off.
That was less than four weeks ago. Back then, talk of “fighting for their playoff lives” didn’t seem so silly.
COVID-19 has halted hockey and, well, everything else.
Gaudreau is home in New Jersey, splitting firewood on the family acreage .
Tkachuk is back in St. Louis, trying to beat his younger brother Brady — a rising-star winger for the Ottawa Senators — in basketball, trying to beat his younger sister Taryn in pickleball, and trying, like everybody else, to stay in shape.
Starting puck-stopper David Rittich, who hails from the Czech Republic, is among the Flames regulars who have returned to Europe.
Giordano is among those who stuck around Calgary, his full-time home, although he’d agree the captain of the city these days is emergency management chief Tom Sampson.
Sampson, by the way, decreed late last week there will be no public gatherings in Cowtown before at least the end of June. That would include spectator gatherings at the Saddledome or any sort of revelry on the Red Mile.
The NHL remains hopeful about handing out the Stanley Cup in 2020, even if that means a modified/shortened playoff format and skating through slush in July and August.
Even that seems a little — maybe a lot — far-fetched, but we’re all looking for something to feel optimistic about. (As Flames general manager Brad Treliving repeated several times on a Tuesday conference call, the return of hockey would mean there has been a whole lot of good news in the fight against COVID-19, which is what everyone is rooting for.)
Wednesday was supposed to be the start of hockey’s best stretch.
As Sportsnet re-airs some of the classics in each market, we’re reminded the most indelible moments are always created in the spring. From the overtime heroics of Joel Otto, Theoren Fleury, Martin Gelinas and Matt Stajan to that Stanley Cup-clincher at the old Montreal Forum, Flames fans have been able to re-live some of their faves during isolation.
Gaudreau, Giordano, Tkachuk and their pals want to create more of those memories.
The Flames have talked at length about the lessons learned from their first-round humbling a year ago.
The consensus was that this current cast would be judged on what they accomplished in the post-season. Nobody imagined there might not be one.
The past month, and the next month, would have provided some answers for Treliving as he tries to build a winner.
Can Gaudreau be counted on as an offensive catalyst in the playoffs, when the whistles are mostly pocketed and the wee winger is being whacked and slashed and face-washed by the exact same opponents every second night? In his past two spring showings, Johnny Hockey has zero goals and just three assists in nine games. Eight were team losses.
Can Rittich handle the workload — and the pressure — of being the go-to goalie for a could-be contender? Big Save Dave wasn’t especially sharp in January or February, perhaps due to an elbow injury revealed last week. During the stretch-run, he could have either cemented his status as the starter or lost that job to Cam Talbot.
Treliving must also determine which pieces will be part of the plan, especially on the back-end. The Flames’ blue-line brigade includes five soon-to-be unrestricted free-agents — TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone and trade-deadline additions Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson. They can’t afford to re-sign them all.
He must decide, too, if this coach is a keeper. Geoff Ward has been serving as interim bench boss since the Bill Peters saga, providing some stability and positivity and leading his crew to a 24-15-3 record over that span. Is he the right man for the job? Post-season success would have been the best way to prove it.
Wednesday was supposed to the day that hockey fans had been waiting for. It sure feels like the wait is just beginning.
Is playoff hockey a pipedream? Is the 2019-20 campaign over before the fun really started?
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