It seems like every time I've written a handshake piece here at Anaheim Calling it ends up being based on some sort of historical parallel for the team, generally bashing-to-fit a comparison to another year of great success for the team. In this case, it'd be easy to try and make the case that this years Calgary Flames have some commonalities with the 2004 Western Conference champions. Sure, it wasn't rising star power that propelled that team much as this one, rather they both to varying degrees were driven by that one word that's taken on almost a pejorative quality in the analytics age: grit.
In many ways being gritty is a necessity to make up for a dearth of talent, skill, or highly refined and honed professional ability. The saying goes that "hard work beats good talent, when good talent doesn't work hard." Really, for the course of 82 games you could argue the Flames are the perfect example of that axiom, taking advantage of Los Angeles attempting to sleep walk through another regular season and dumping the defending champs to the historic dustbin most recently littered by the 2007 Hurricanes and 1996 Devils. How did they do it? More nights than not it was attempting to out-work the opposition by focusing on blocking shots defensively, and countering when opportunities arose.
Calgary president Brian Burke is many things. The man who constructed the Naslund-Bertuzzi-Sedins Canucks. The man who acquired Pronger and helped put the Ducks over the top. The man who wanted a new challenge in the basket case that is Toronto and was booted for raging against the machine too hard. The man who values grit, truculence, and compete as more than virtues but aspects that can be defining traits of a team.
So with the Flames, it's no surprise where the spotlight shines. Matchups with the Leafs prove comical. Brandon Bollig is acquired from Chicago. Not having the sort of depth of highly skilled players the likes of the Blackhawks, Kings, and Ducks are able to trot out means they needed to get by on doing the hard stuff. The ethos for the team is forged. One of my favorite artists on Twitter LePac (whose pen is behind all those links) makes some killer cartoons.
Yet now after having watched Anaheim go five games against those Flames, it's hard not to admire certain aspects of that ethos and the players that made it happen. Seeing Karri Ramo not only step in because of the uproarious failure of Jonas Hiller, but in doing so show flashes of the goalie that dominated the KHL was nice to see, especially because I got to remember his Nightmare Before Christmas and Exposed Brain masks from his first NHL run with Tampa. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are two of the more exciting young talents in the league. TJ Brodie and Dennis Wideman showed there's more than just Mark Giordano in terms of skilled defensemen on the team.
Sure, there was the frustration of Matt Stajan running Frederik Andersen in game three, and the unintentional-intentional interference with Corey Perry in game five. More than that though was seeing how Jiri Hudler has gone from being a tertiary at best piece in Detroit to one of the indispensable scorers for the Flames. The same Joe Colborne that the Maple Leafs turned their nose up at scoring a beautiful shorthanded breakaway. Micheal Ferland having a heck of a shot in addition to an amazingly annoying streak. Josh Jooris having a hilarious name.
Part of me also wouldn't be being wholly truthful if I didn't admit that I enjoyed the complete and utter loss that Calgary left the heavy shot-attempt weighers. They beat the percentages for a large sample size thanks to quality goaltending, shooting well and fortune on the comeback. But the playoffs also showed that those percentages are awful hard to beat when the other team has more talented players that are willing to work just as hard for a shorter stretch. Can the Flames win the Cup like this? Probably not. Can they remain an irritant not only to those who play them on the ice, but those who crunch the numbers?
Regression is a thing that Colorado learned a lesson in this season. Calgary probably has one coming next year too. After all, is Lance Bouma really going to score 15 goals again? Can Hudler-Monahan-Gaudreau score at a combined rate of 16.7% of their shots? For one year, and one postseason (seriously, it doesn't get better than seeing the twilight Canucks get bounced by the outlier), grit got a moment in the sun. Thank you Flames, for reminding us that the term isn't the punchline describing an unskilled and untalented team/player, but the essence of hard work that in the right circumstances can be what's needed most to win.